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Mixing flourishing with servitude, part 3

Just as I was finishing off my previous entry, two articles on the meaningfulness or otherwise of jobs appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald (3 September 2022, MyCareer p. 7): Jim Bright’s column advises that Glib career advice ignores power imbalances while Allison Schrager says that Quiet quitters look for meaning in the wrong place (the wrong place being their work).

Bright contends that advice to “follow your passions” ignores the reality that many workers have little power to quit (since they need the money) or change jobs (since the market only provides certain kinds of work).

Schrager contends that expecting to find instant and constant meaningfulness in a job is unrealistic, since many if not all “meaningful” jobs require a certain amount of drudgery in order to master the skills required, and few jobs involve “saving the world”. She makes the point that many people who report high levels of job satisfaction aren’t working at “cool startups or NGOs”—they’re doing all manner of work on which someone puts enough value to be willing to pay for it (Dave Graeber may beg to differ).

I can’t see much to disagree with in either analysis; the question is what to do about it. Bright has much to say about industrial relations, and maybe laws or markets giving workers more power would at least improve the wages and conditions in certain kinds of jobs, but it won’t by itself give the same jobs meaning. For Shrager, plugging away at an entry-level job is a stage that must be passed through while the skills are mastered to make a real difference.

Neither are in principle incompatible with the view of this blog, though maybe plugging away would take longer if we worked fewer hours. One might wonder if we’d plug away at all if work were entirely abolished, as was the conceit of Science Fiction and the Economics of Utopia—yet plenty of people are able to become skilled musicians, athletes, artists, and so on through hobbies for which they receive little or no pay.

For the folks that Bright describes, consigned to precarious and poorly-paid work rarely described as “meaningful”, excessive working hours might seem the least of their problems. Yet if the modern economy continues to demand delivery drivers, fast food cooks, and the like, allowing the same workers some spare time to do what they really want might be as important as good pay and predictability of employment.

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