Meaning is a tough thing to define. To some, meaning is synonymous with impact, i.e Symbols and Signs is objectively a meaningful piece of literature whether or not you yourself have read it by right of its sustained relevance. To others (myself included), meaning operates with internal currency. More discretely: no one will ever read the short stories I write in my bedroom but without them I’d feel a little less whole.
For the longest time the freshets of purpose and employment were never meant to cross streams and on the occasions that they did, it was customary to accept the defect soberly–even within the arts. Watch any interview with any actor from 60 years ago and compare it to the ones from now. Performers of the golden-age would typically describe what they did in clerical terms. Acting was just a job; a fun job with lots of perks and challenges but a job all the same. Today, tell us about the film? Is a green light to drone on and on with parallels, metaphors, euphemistic dribble and half-remembered references to Viola Spolin or what have you. Satanic panic, recessions, fraught political times, and the weathering of theological institutions have all played a role in metamorphosing the career that pays our bills into the calling that dictates our well-being. A new study authored by researchers at Olivet Nazarene University, articulates this curiosity with a massive survey featuring 2,024 employed Millennials. To this, the authors write,
“Millennials now occupy a third of the American workforce, and their influence on workplace and career norms has been much discussed. We know they value informal culture, flexibility and progressive benefits. They’ve also proven to be a conscientious and outspoken generation, in tune with the world around them. To this point, we’re curious about millennials’ relationship with their work and career. Do millennials prioritize meaningful work? Are they willing to work more hours, for less money, to make a positive impact on the world?”
The strategic pursuit of purpose
The authors conducted a series of interviews with over 2,000 currently employed Americans between the ages of 25 and 40 from September 19th to September 22nd, 2019. The median age of the study pool was 32; 55% of which were female and 45% were male.
According to the new report, more than half of the participants (57%) felt that it is very important for their work to have a positive impact on the world. An additional 50% would take a pay cut to achieve this objective and 68% would work significantly more hours than they do currently in the pursuit of the same. Lengthening my suspicion that the generality of this desire is more or less unique to Millennials and Gen Zers, 56% of respondents belonging to the former were confident that meaningful work meant more to them than it did to their parents. Good thing too, because 64% of the same demographic are currently employed at places that provide them with purpose. Thirty-nine percent of the 36% that do not share in this fortune, feel trapped by reason of it.
“One of the most interesting outcomes of our study is that we’ve been able to assess how people rate the meaning of their work across different industries, types of work and company missions,” the authors explained. “The differentiation between industries is plain and intuitive. In the latter two cases, we attempted to segment the vast world of professional work in other ways, to eliminate various biases and penetrate beneath the surface layer of industry labels.”
Of course, securing a job that staffs meaning in addition to the roof over your head has its drawbacks. It’s satisfying but it’s also hard to move in, like swimming in ice cream. For a start, I don’t know that anything perplexes purposeful work more than the conflation of aptitude and quality. Profound work isn’t as a rule engineered by deft hands. Impact only has to convey a relevant piece of the human experience and failure happens to be a huge part of that. In fact, sometimes a succession of fumbles is more lyrical than a neat stack of objective victories. Whatever the field, meaning invariably privileges ingenuity over expertise. Applying this ideology to our careers isn’t so easy. The workforce substantiates effort with a binary language. The bad get fired, the good don’t. The great get raises, the not-so greats don’t. If the world operated by this same rubric, we’d never have The Big Lebowski, The Bell Jar, Starry Night, Secrets of the Sun, South Park or whatever apple brain child you’re probably reading this on.
A little while back Ladders had the opportunity to interview Mo Mozuch, a former senior editor at Newsweek that had to watch his dream job turn into a nightmare sentence that spanned two decades. Because writing is a thing he would be doing if he never had to work another day in his life, he found it hard to extricate his sense of worth from his paycheck. He was living in this disfigured abortion of that famous Thomas Mann qoute, the one that says: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Obstacles at work began to prod Mozuch’s psyche because the stress it bought him concurrently meant he was destined to be doing it. The only problem was, his responsibility for an entire team of employees (and friends) deprived him of the luxury to submit to panic.
“When you stop enjoying the thing you love to do, you’ll know. You start to be unable to divorce yourself from work and only see your interests as a well for content and angles for stories. On one hand, this kind of obsessiveness can be an asset, but because media is so competitive you’re constantly plagued by impostor syndrome. ‘I don’t love this thing as much as X does, so what right do I have to say Y about it?’ Then it’s a question of finding new interests or finding a new job. I chose the latter,” Mozuch told Ladders.
The latter ended up being a small up and coming publishing firm. There, Mozuch clocks in everyday, surveys interesting query letters and then shepherds a stable of blunt visions to the whetstone. He doesn’t derive his sense of purpose from the job, he instead brings a sense of purpose to the work it allows him to do. Whether it’s acting, neurology, writing short stories or editing them, meaning is bestowed by the crafter, never the craft itself. You’ll break your neck looking for it any where else.
“Broke is temporary but unhappy is a state of mind. I don’t advocate for people leaving a job because it’s difficult or uninteresting, rather, it’s a matter of self-worth and respect,” Mozuch told Ladders. “I have an entire second lifetime ahead of me where I’ll be working five days a week, 50 weeks a year. I can’t fathom what things might be like for me at the end of that. I hope I’ll still be writing.”