Work and meaning

I grew up in a culture of work. My father ran multiple businesses, and rose early in the morning and went straight to work. It is a pattern that I have adopted for my life as well. I was rewarded for work from an early age. My parents and other adults in my life praised me when I worked hard. I was taught that there is a direct relationship between work and value. If you want something in this life you have to work for it. When I encounter a challenge or a problem at the church, my first instinct is nearly always to simply work harder. Of course there are problems and issues that arise in the church that can’t be solved by simply putting in more hours and I have had to learn to moderate my instincts, but I still gain a lot of meaning out of my work. I love my profession and I rise each day eager to get to work.

In my generation, this attitude is generally richly rewarded. I have peers who work in other businesses that also reward hard work. An accountant I know is partner in a firm where the standard for partners is a 60-hour work week. They are well-compensated for their work, but it is expected that those at the head of the firm will invest a huge slice of their time in making the firm a success.

Laura Empson presented a special report for BBC Radio in which she discussed “insecure overachievers.’ Insecure overachievers are brilliant, successful, and apparently confident people who describe themselves as insecure. They are exceptionally capable and fiercely ambitious, but they also are driven by a profound belief in their own inadequacy. I don’t think I fit into this category. I don’t spent much of my time or energy doubting my abilities. But I do often feel that i need to put in extra hours at work in order to earn the recognition and respect of the people I serve.

Over the summer, as part of the sabbatical, leaders in the church I serve were openly discussing changes in leadership. Among those conversations were specific conversations about my retirement, including a poll on a suggested date for my retirement. Although I understand that conversations about leadership are important and especially so when it has been a long time since a transition in leadership, I found the discussions to be unsettling. I was made nervous by the conversations and upon a bit of self examination I discovered that I was feeling threatened by just thinking of the time when I move on from this particular calling.

Of course it will happen. None of us can go on forever. And there will be a time when it is appropriate for me to step aside to allow new leadership to emerge. In the meantime, however, I enjoy the work that I do very much and find that I draw a lot of meaning from doing that work.

My attitude about work is appropriate for the present economy. There are plenty of jobs to be found and work is available to those who seek it in my field. In fact there is probably a shortage of ministers in our denomination and other similar denominations. However, there are workers who have trouble finding jobs. There are many jobs in manufacturing, for example, that are simply going away. Although politicians like to blame immigration and outsourcing for the last of jobs in some fields, the truth is that the economy is shifting. Automation has resulted in far fewer workers in some sectors of the economy. A farmer, for example, its capable of doing the work that was done by ten persons just a generation ago due to larger and more efficient machinery. In manufacturing robotic machines are doing work that once was done by humans.

There is plenty of evidence that this trend will continue and that in the foreseeable future there simply will not be as many jobs as there are people. More an more work will be done by machines and less and less routine and mundane tasks will be available for humans. It seems quite possible that people of the generation of my grandchildren will face circumstances where extended unemployment is common. This raises all kinds of questions. When there simply are not enough jobs, how do people obtain the resources to survive? And, more importantly, how do people find meaning in life when their meaning isn’t derived from their work?

Although South Dakota has a very low overall unemployment rate, there are communities, many of which are on Reservations, where unemployment is very high. The official statistics often don’t count those who live in chronic, multi-generational poverty because they are not actively seeking employment and receive no unemployment benefits. These communities have a lot of social problems. the abuse of alcohol and other substances is rampant. There are folks who simply don’t find much meaning in life at all.

Work has a powerful effect on one’s sense of self-worth and meaning. If the future, as some have predicted, is a place where there are more people than jobs and leisure time increases dramatically, where do people gain meaning and a sense of purpose for their lives?

Yesterday a colleague was reporting on a new mobile pizza kitchen. The entire process of making the pizzas is automated. A computer selects the appropriate toppings and robotic machines assemble the pizzas. They bake in a mobile oven and the time of their baking is arranged to fit the delivery schedule. The only person in the process is a driver, who receives instructions from the GPS unit in the dashboard of the truck on where to go to make the deliveries. Combine that service with the trend toward driverless vehicles and it is easy to imagine the day when no people are needed to deliver fresh, hot pizza to you door. But if there are no jobs for the people, where do they get the resources to pay for the pizza?

It is evident that we need to have a lot of conversations about work and its meaning as we are swept into this new future.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!