Should We Expect Work to Be Meaningful?

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Do young people increasingly believe that work -- or at least work for pay -- is not a source of meaning in their lives?

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Posting a few weeks back, I noted that in today's economy the impulse to demand meaning in one's job may seem naive, but that the drive to find meaning in work is not. I asked for feedback and got a lot--both on this site, and off line.  What is clear is that many of us are struggling not only to find work, but to find purpose in a world where one's best efforts are so often overlooked.  Young people in particular seem to be struggling with this ... and one particularly insightful comment came from Maureen K. Chu, a recent graduate of New York University who -- like so many of her peers -- is struggling to find purchase in today's daunting job market. Here are some of her thoughts:


Some further reflection brought to mind a piece that had baffled me in a course on nineteenth-century British Literature: the chapter entitled "Labour" from Thomas Carlyle's "Past and Present". I wanted to like Carlyle...(but) his declaration that "The latest Gospel in this world is, Know thy work and do it" disturbed me.  I struggled to understand why an idealist, influenced by the thinkers of both the European and American Enlightenments, would stress the value of labor beyond its simple purpose as a means of making a living, such that it would become, as he writes, "a life-purpose."

Maureen's comment seemed to echo those of several other young respondents who confessed that they did not expect to rely on work -- at least work for pay -- as a steady source of meaning in their lives. Many of the middle-aged respondents said they wished they'd learned that lesson long ago. What are your thoughts? 

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Ellen Ruppel Shell is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Journalism at Boston University. She is the author of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.

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