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 a professor and science journalist who teaches at Boston University. She is the author most recently of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. More

Atlantic contributing editor Ellen Ruppel Shell teaches at Boston University, where she co-directs the Graduate Program in Science Journalism. She writes on science, medicine, the media, economics, and sometimes even sports and the arts, and tends to focus on the underlying cultural and societal implications. She is the author most recently of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.
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