Beyond the Paycheck

Meaningful work, argues psychologist Barry Schwartz, shouldn't be a luxury. It should be a feature of every job, from CEO to factory worker.


There’s a belief that what gets some workers to keep coming into work every day is their “psychic wages”—the fulfillment that comes with doing meaningful work. That thinking is usually applied to authors, or doctors, or social workers, but the assumption for why a different class of workers—janitors, factory workers, call-center employees—keeps showing up every day is often simpler: They aren’t there for anything but money.

But Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, believes that jobs are about more than money, for both blue- and white-collar workers alike. When he was trained as a psychologist, decades ago, the thinking of B. F. Skinner—of Skinner Box fame—dominated the field. Skinner’s view of human nature was that every action can be explained through the lens of rewards and punishment: If someone wasn’t doing something, he or she simply wasn’t getting a sufficient reward for it. “And that always struck me as wrong—at least, as a description of human beings, as incomplete,” Schwartz told me.

Schwartz applies that long-held criticism of his to the world of work in his new book, Why We Work, in which he, a self-identified “outsider to the field” of labor economics, insists that it’s possible for every worker at every company and organization to receive fulfillment from their jobs—yes, even call-center employees and janitors.

In Schwartz’s ideal world, every worker would feel important and listened to, and would feel that they are doing meaningful work that betters the lives of others. But getting to that point would require a series of radical revisions to the way we think about work and consumption. I recently talked to Schwartz about what work would be like if those revisions were to take hold, as well as some limitations of his ideas. The interview that follows has been edited and condensed for the sake of clarity.

Joe Pinsker: In your book, you argue that human nature really isn't natural at all, that in any given era, people have certain beliefs about what motivates humans, and those beliefs go on to shape the way everything in society is designed. Can you lay out what the assumptions about human nature are that are built into the labor economy and where they came from?

Barry Schwartz: Sure. I’ll start with Adam Smith, just because he’s sort of the father of modern industrial capitalism in a way, and the father of economics. He had this view that people are lazy, that they’d rather be doing nothing than doing something, so if you want to get them to work you have to make it worth their while. The way you made it worth their while was by paying them. He’s certainly not as reductive about human beings as what I just said would imply. But he certainly has this view, and he talks about the virtues of division of labor.

Under this model, it doesn’t matter if people dislike the work they do or if they’re doing the same operation over and over again, a thousand times a day, because they wouldn’t like whatever they were doing. So we have a 250-year history of constructing workplaces on the assumption that people are only doing work for the pay.

Pinsker: How does this assumption affect the way we think about work?

Schwartz: If it’s false that the only reason that people work is for pay, then these factories won’t work—you won’t get people to work in them. When people work in institutions like the factory, they become the very creatures that the factory was designed on the assumption they already were. The factory can change people, and Smith even says this in The Wealth of Nations: People who do this type of repetitive work become as stupid as is possible for a human creature to become. But the key word is “become.” They don’t start out that way, they become that way. I’m trying to suggest in the book that, in general, our theories about human nature are much more inventions about who people are, than they are discoveries of what people are.

Pinsker: So if that’s the way that things stand now, what would you rather see instead?

Schwartz: When it comes to working “just for pay,” there’s us and there’s them. There’s the white-collar workers, the professionals, the knowledge class, and they want engagement, meaning, the opportunity to learn and grow, and autonomy. They don’t work just for pay. And then there’s everybody else, and everybody else is just about the paycheck.

But there are plenty of examples of blue-collar workers who, if they had any little opportunity to get meaning and significance out of their work, they’d take that opportunity—even if they’re not paid for going the extra mile. In fact, they might be punished if a supervisor sees them, but they still do it. I think the seeds are present in people, and the trick is to create institutions that nurture these seeds instead of basically stamping them out. Mostly, we have stamped them out.

Pinsker: One of the examples that you bring up in your book is someone who works at a customer-service call center, which is a job that most people think of as being full of drudgery. Under the model that you’re proposing, what does that job look like?

Schwartz: So here you are at a call center: People are calling up because they have a problem, they can’t get the software to work, or they don’t know how to set up the new computer—whatever it is. They have a problem, and you can solve their problem and improve their lives as a result. All of a sudden it’s not drudgery anymore, because somebody’s life is going to be better as a direct consequence of what you do.

But when your supervisor starts putting the screws to you to make sure you get as many calls-per-hour as you possibly can, you lose sight of the mission—which is to solve problems—and the mission just becomes terminating the calls. You know, get this person off the line, give them a non-solution as long as he seems satisfied, so he’ll hang up. Why would anyone do that job? The answer is for the paycheck. Why else would you do it?

Instead, you can inspire people even if their minute-to-minute activities are mostly routinized, if you describe the vision of the good that their work achieves. They’ll even tolerate the routinized work and they’ll also extend themselves to see if they can figure out ways to do this better, more efficiently, and more effectively. Of course, they’ll only do that if they have some confidence that if they make a suggestion, you’ll listen.

Pinsker: In your book, you make the point that it’s not only about making employees’ lives better, but that in the end the company is probably going to be better off too, considering employee retention and morale.

Schwartz: And that’s the astonishing thing. There are reams of literature that show that so-called “enlightened workplaces” are more profitable than the draconian lean-and-mean workplaces. And you would think that people by now would have figured it out, and the lean-and-mean places would have disappeared. But this ideology is so deeply entrenched that some companies aren’t changing even in the face of evidence that, if you lighten up a little bit, it improves the bottom line.

Pinsker: Because they’re competing for talent, companies in knowledge industries are forced into actually treating people well. There are all these Silicon Valley companies that offer their employees extremely luxurious perks such as free food, or gym access, or haircuts, or laundry service. So do those types of compensation programs inspire you or worry you?

Schwartz: I think they are just like decorations on the top of a layer cake. I don't think anyone works at Google because of the free food. It’s sort of a salient thing you can point to from the outside about how great it must be to work at Google. People work at Google because they love the work, and I'm sure they don't mind getting well compensated and having free food—which is not only free but extremely good. If they changed the work and kept everything else the same, their whole workforce would leave.

Pinsker: I'm imagining an executive reading this interview and having one of two reactions. The first is probably just dismissing your ideas as overly fuzzy and touchy-feely. And the second is probably sitting up a little straighter and thinking to himself or herself, "Wow, I could use this to save so much money and cut so many costs!"

I was wondering if there was a dark side to this. I want to use an example of a company that sells soda, which arguably isn’t doing great things for the nation’s health. What if people who make soda start holding the belief that they’re making the world a better place just because they're great at producing what probably is still a very unhealthy product. Can’t this thinking be co-opted or spun in the name of making the world a better place?

Schwartz: Oh, absolutely. The assumption that guides the market is that both parties in transactions are free to choose to complete the transaction, or not. If they complete the transaction then it must be because both sides are better off. Meeting a consumer desire is not a bad thing, but there are some consumer desires that we wish consumers didn’t have. I think the soda companies are actually doing a disservice—and the more you inspire the workforce to get more and more productive by telling them that they are meeting a human need, the worse the problem. I agree with you completely. It can be co-opted, but that seems to me to be a side issue. Most of the time the work that people do is in the service of something that does make people, at least marginally, better off. And sometimes not. Sometimes it’s just the products that are being sold have no redeeming features.

If we put to the forefront the question, “Is what I’m doing making people’s lives better?” then I suspect people would be much less attracted to working at companies like Coke or the tobacco companies, than they are now.

Pinsker: Before we had the setup we currently have—so, before the Industrial Revolution, before Adam Smith—was there work that gave people the sorts of things that made work meaningful?

Schwartz: People used to be craftsmen and small landholders. So what you did as a small landholder was a whole variety of things. There was little division of labor. You were taking care of livestock, you were growing the modest crops that you had, you were doing everything. And moreover, all of what you did was right outside your yard. It was integrated with the rest of your life as a person, as a spouse, and as a parent and a member of a community.

I don’t want to romanticize the hard life that people had prior to the Industrial Revolution. Life was hard. For a lot of people it was too hard. But their means of livelihood was highly varied, and that allowed them to develop and deploy skills to get better and better at being a farmer, or what have you.

And then when the factories started to come, your work was separated from the rest of your life, not integrated. You actually went to a different place to do your work, and beyond that, the manager of the factory takes this integrated task of making horseshoes and divides it up into 28 different components. So the question is, who’s making a horseshoe? The answer to that question is nobody’s making a horseshoe.

Pinsker: Nobody and everybody.

Schwartz: Nobody and everybody. So unless you create a kind of communal sense of joint responsibility for the finished product, you no longer can extract any satisfaction from making the best rivets that you can possibly make. The problems with disengagement and anomie and soullessness, which characterize many people in modern workplaces, were just not a part of the picture prior to the Industrial Revolution.

Pinsker: Has the business world, and especially the well-read people that the business world looks to, like management theorists, ever embraced the idea that we should reorganize work in a way that pays attention to the non-monetary wages of work?

Schwartz: Yeah, absolutely. For people who work in management, I would say, they will read this and say, “Duh, we've been saying this for half a century,” and they have. My sense as an outsider to the field is that this goes in and out of fashion. My notion that we're creating people who are motivated in a certain way rather than taking advantage of something that's endogenous to human beings, that may be a contribution that I can take credit for. Everything else that I say about what gives people satisfaction in work, people have been saying forever.

It is a mystery, isn’t it? That though these ideas keep getting raised, they have their moment and then they kind of peter out, and there's very little change in the structure of the actual workplace. And it's not because the ideas are false, and it's not because they make workplaces less productive. It’s something else. It may be that managers are extremely unwilling to relinquish any control over the operation, and if you're actually going to take my suggestion seriously, you're putting much more control in the hands of the worker and taking it from the manager.

Pinsker: A lot of the research that you draw on in your book has just been around for decades. Are you more or less hopeful about things changing now than you were when you first encountered these ideas?

Schwartz: I don’t know. I guess maybe I'm a little bit more hopeful because the sense I get—although I'm not totally sure that this is true—is that young adults really want more out of their lives than their parents did, and maybe won't tolerate soul-deadening work. But also, it may be true while they are young, and then when they start having significant financial responsibilities to other people they will fall into line just like their parents did and end up doing things that they swore they would never do.

You know, people often say that the time for making these types of changes is when times are good, when everybody’s flush. Then you can afford to experiment a little bit, or you can afford to give up little bit of pay in return for other things. But times are never flush enough, or at least the rosiness of the future is never certain enough for people to give up these other things unless they appreciate how much they're sacrificing. And so my main aim in this book is to call people's attention to how much they're sacrificing. And I have some optimism about that.