In Praise of Meaningless Work
Mindfulness mantras are the latest tool of corporate control
The world of management has discovered the human soul. Each new dawn brings with it another survey, article, or TED Talk emphasizing the need to restore meaning to work. Whether laboring at a bike shop, mounting hostile takeovers, or psychoanalyzing house pets, older workers want it, and millennials demand it. No one can seem to clearly define what it is—feeling challenged? helping people? sweat equity? skill-building?—but we know the elusive quality when we see it, and we have registered its near-total absence from our work lives.1
Generations of employees have felt this emptiness, of course, but only recently has it become a matter of pressing concern for management types. This is not necessarily because the purposelessness and futility that defines life in an American office is killing their employees’ souls. It’s more that the malaise may also be keeping those same workers from attaining the utmost productivity. The research backing this abounds, but the most resonant contribution came in the form of Gallup’s much-cited, 2013 State of the American Workplace report, which found that companies whose employees are comparatively more engaged generate 147 percent higher earnings per share.2 Workers who are emotionally invested in their work also tend to be less motivated by earthlier enticements, such as pay, vacations, flextime, and good hours.
More output at next to no cost. And thus did the word ring out: Ours will no longer be a future of rote compliance with company objectives, pursued ceaselessly in a deadening, musty cubicle farm. Ours will be jobs bursting with meaning. Meaning and productivity. But especially productivity.
Our forebears didn’t have to look quite so far to find the point of their labor. For primitive man it was easy: you hunted; you ate what you killed; you spent the rest of your time trying not to get eaten by something else. The Puritans saw how hard God worked to create the world, and they toiled with comparable avidity in order to keep him happy. The blacksmith smithed, the farmer farmed, the tanner tanned, the pirate pirated.
It wasn’t until Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford effectively replaced the artisan economy with assembly lines and so-called scientific management in the early twentieth century that the tug of war between companies who treat workers like numbers and workers who insist on being treated like people began in earnest. Toiling under the stopwatch, workers began to complain of stress. Profits soared and antagonism bloomed. Marx’s theory of alienated labor, in which workers inevitably become commodities themselves, began to bear out.
Since then, it’s been a lopsided tug-of-war between the emotional needs of humanity and the imperatives of corporate profits. Profits generally win, providing fresh reminders of their supremacy every time a thriving company lays off employees to appease colicky shareholders, or installs a monitor on your computer to measure how much time you’ve spent at your desk, or hands its CEO a duffel bag of cash for running a company into the ground. For workers, this has taken a toll. We are all alienated labor now. The soul cries out for relief.
And the soul shall have it, at least according to two new books. Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business from the Inside Out, by New York Times business reporter David Gelles, looks at corporate America’s increasing interest in meditation to enhance productivity and ameliorate stress. And The Business Romantic: Give Everything, Quantify Nothing, and Create Something Greater Than Yourself, by marketing executive Tim Leberecht, urges … well, just reread that subtitle.
Leberecht sees a tired, cynical labor force, and lays the blame for it on a working world so obsessed with metrics that it’s become closed off “to the delights, the mysteries, the moments of transcendence, and even the hard-won sorrows of an everyday life in business.” His “Rules of Enchantment” “prioritize joy over optimization,” and he contends that workplaces that follow these dictums will be abloom with sensitivity, self-discovery, generosity, ambiguity, vulnerability, and “an appreciation for the sublime … and secretive.” In order to “engender an ‘institutionalized’ romance,” he has called on companies to marshal the neglected humanities—poetry, art, music—and establish themselves as “arbiters of meaning” (and also “maintain profit margins”).
We should embrace not the meaningfulness of work, but its meaninglessness.
But isn’t that asking a bit much from our jobs? Not at all, Leberecht explains. We don’t have an alternative: “Our lives are already so encroached upon by the normative values of capitalism, that our only choice is to reveal our fullest selves within this mainstream market culture.” Moreover, the consequences of disillusionment are dire: “When we disengage [from our jobs], we lock away our most private desires,” he writes. “Every time we disengage, a small part of our love dies.”3
Mindful Work, too, is a bit moony, but somewhat more practical. Gelles cites studies showing that meditation can reduce stress, increase compassion, and foster a healthier state of mind. He speculates that by institutionalizing mindfulness, companies will become better, less polluting, less exploitative corporate citizens (a claim undermined somewhat by the fact that “hedge fund managers are using meditation to gain an edge in their training”).
Gelles reports on efforts by older firms, like General Mills, Ford, and Goldman Sachs, to harness the power of mindfulness, but pays special attention to the darlings of Silicon Valley, especially Google, where employees can enroll in a “course in mindfulness” called “Search Inside Yourself.” The man behind Search Inside Yourself is a senior Google executive named Chade-Meng Tan, who gave himself the title “Jolly Good Fellow.” During a seminar on the importance of self sacrifice, humility, and compassion in the workplace, Meng gets right to the heart of the matter: “There’s a false dichotomy between getting shit done and being loved,” he says. “But being loved is good for your career. When you are loved, people will work harder for you.”
And here we were thinking love had no practical applications. Turns out it’s useful after all. All you have to do is lash it to the wheel and make it sing its little heart out.
Idon’t know how to make money. if I did, I wouldn’t be writing this essay on a Sunday. I’d be fattening on my capital and disparaging Piketty like the rest of the global elite. But I have held many jobs—from gas station attendant, to hotel clerk, to magazine editor. I’ve managed staffs, and worked under many different bosses. I’ve liked most of the bosses, and loved a few—even the one who cracked my rib in a fight. I’ve liked most of the jobs, and loved some, too. I work hard. I believe that without the strictures of gainful employment, idleness—which I both require and adore—slides into sloth. I also come from a family of proud small business owners who do good by their employees and their customers. And I’ve now quit two fairly plum jobs to try my luck in the wilds of self-employment because I had come to feel off-kilter or uninspired.
All of which is to say: I am a meaningful work guy right down to the ground, and I fully support anyone’s quest to obtain work that matters to them. But when I see management types become giddy over the prospect of “scaling” meaning and purpose and “intervening” in the lives of their employees to foster compassion and improve outcomes, I see whole sweeping vistas of fresh bullshit opening up. I see employees who go to meditation class just because they don’t want the boss to think they’re not trying hard enough. I see job applicants being forced into the humiliating charade of having to pretend they’d do a job gratis, because it means so much, because to not do so would be to not get the job.4 I see the old team-building horrors of mandatory corporate fun morph into exercises of mandatory fulfillment, like when a former boss of mine made us write essays about how our jobs make us happy, or when an acquaintance’s manager had her use Legos to convey her perception of her job. (She made the boat from Apocalypse Now.) I see Leberecht’s advice for people who do not love their jobs, writ large across the land: “Pretend to be a Business Romantic,” he proposes, “fake it until you make it!”5 Is this advice anything more than corporate incentives dressed up in office emo? Will meaning-mongering be the new greenwashing?
Even if these efforts do make us more legitimately engaged, it’ll just serve to treat the symptoms and not the disease that’s inspired so many people to seek significance in their work in the first place. “Our lives are choked with work,” wrote Richard Donkin in his 2001 history of employment, Blood, Sweat and Tears: The Evolution of Work, and it’s only gotten worse since then. Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor argued that, by 2000, we were working five more weeks per year than we did in 1967. Americans work an average of 299 more hours per year than the French, and 400 more than Germans. (Germans? Who knew?) Productivity has grown 65 percent since 1979, according to the Economic Policy Institute, but wages have been stagnant. We’re among the most productive nations on earth, and the strain is showing. Gelles cites a report by Carnegie Mellon which found that stress levels have increased 18 percent for women and 25 percent for men over the past 30 years. According to the Gallup workplace study, some 70 percent of Americans claim to be disengaged in their jobs. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ranked the U.S. twenty-third out of 23 countries for work-life balance. We are spent—and yet we continue to produce.
Uncoincidentally, corporate profits are at record levels.
So maybe it’s this: Maybe the problem isn’t meaningless work. Most modern work, like it or not, is inherently meaningless beyond the paycheck. (Have you seen what people do for a living?) No, the problem is that work has so monopolized our lives that there are ever fewer opportunities to find meaning outside of the office.
In 2011, the philosopher Mark Kingwell wrote, “The workaholic colonizes his own despair at the perceived emptiness of life—its non-productivity—by filling it in with work.” It’s not just individuals. The broader culture is hopelessly workaholic—not raging against the emptiness of life, but actively emptying it, and filling the hole with more work dressed up as life. The manic drive to make labor meaningful, at least on the part of management, is an acceleration of that process, ultimately less about unlocking human potential, one suspects, than hydrofracking it.
Perhaps it’s not meaning we want but relief, and we just lack the words to give voice to the dreaded heresy: This is too much work. I don’t want to do this anymore. (Where is our twenty-first-century Bartleby?) We may mock the French—and now, the Germans, apparently—and hold obnoxious dinner-table competitions boasting about how many hours we put in, how little we sleep—but I would kill ten men for a four-day workweek, and I’ll bet most of you would, too.
Yes, we should all hope—demand, even—that the workplace of the future will be governed more by respect and sensitivity than cupidity and the Peter Principle. But until that day comes, we should embrace not the meaningfulness of work, but its meaninglessness. The cold, unromantic transaction. The part that keeps food in our bellies and a roof over our heads. The part that, theoretically, gives us our nights and weekends. Let’s demand that recompense, first and foremost, and deal with the rest later. With unemployment falling to pre-recession levels, employees are hopefully gaining the leverage to say enough. The prayer is that the line will be drawn, and managers will then see that the way forward is actually very simple: Hire good people. Treat them well. Help them succeed. Compensate them fairly. Let them go home.
This article first appeared on New Republic.