Finding Meaning in a Tired World

I read this awful piece from the Wall Street Journal by Andy Kessler the other day, and I’ll probably make all you students read it too. It begins thusly:

You hear these all the time now. “I want a career with a purpose,” which usually means an activist. Or “I need a good work-life balance,” which suggests someone doesn’t want to work very hard. Gimme a break.

It will perhaps not shock you that this former hedge fund manager* thinks so little of the purpose or balance of other people’s lives, but it was striking. If the idea behind the Quiet Quitting movement is that people have been pushed to the limit for a long time, and now there’s finally a moment when workers have the upper hand, and are going to use that upper hand to push back, then “Gimme a break” is a flaccid response. Is this the best argument against — and I bet Kessler doesn’t like this phrase either — self-care?

Wanting a career with purpose, it seems to me, has motivated people into all kinds of careers other than activism, for a long time: social work, health care, and education being a few among them (again, I sympathize that a hedge fund manager may not be able to relate to this, though I might have thought he would be able to imagine it). I wouldn’t say that I got into teaching primarily for a sense of purpose, I found one there. And I find it hard to believe that most average people in many, many lines of work would not, if pressed, connect their work to some kind of meaning beyond the making of money. One of the remarkable features of Studs Terkel’s classic oral history Working (1974) is that he interviews all kinds of people in all kinds of careers, and so many of them talk about the meaning, or lack of meaning, in their work. Here’s Sharon Atkins, “a receptionist at a large business establishment”:

Until recently I’d cry in the morning. I didn’t want to get up. I’d dread Fridays because Monday was always looming over me. Another five days ahead of me. There never seemed to be any end to it. Why am I doing this? Yet I dread looking for other jobs. I don’t like filling out forms and taking typing tests.

There’s more to say about this, but in the interest of modeling good blogging-as-thinking, I will leave it off for now with this question: What other options do we have for helping to give people meaning for necessary work besides (a) saying “gimme a break” or (b) paying people to not work?

[* This is not to sincerely impugn the humanity of hedge fund managers, some of who understand the importance of purpose and balance in people’s lives. They are, as Ken Robinson once said about university professors, “just another form of life.”]

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