Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Meaningful Work"
In his exploration of the idea of meaningful work, Kent Klitgaard offers the ILO definition of decent work, explaining, “For work to be considered decent, then, it must be steady and provide a livable income. Workers should be able to organize, express their concerns at the workplace, and participate in decisions that affect their quality of life.”
But what makes work meaningful? What is the purpose of work? Klitgaard offers insights from the field of positive psychology, asserting that
...the business-as-usual approach of increasing material wealth while ignoring human needs leads to increased selfishness, social conflict, and despair. Instead, they stress the importance of mastery and “flow”[…], pointing out that happiness must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended. Our best moments are not ones of mere pleasure, or satisfying basic biological needs or social expectations, but those of accomplishment when we push beyond our apparent limits.
These points tie in nicely with his opening statement that “guaranteeing meaningful work for all depends on a broader societal transition rooted in the embrace of post-materialist values.”
A question that lingers in my mind is the context within which all of this unfolds. What are the elements of the framework that govern meaningful work? Could the elements of this framework, applied more broadly, infuse meaning into every aspect of life, relieving possible tensions, for instance, between meaningful work and meaningful leisure, or alleviating altogether the need to make strict distinctions in the first place? One element of this framework pertains to purpose. What is the purpose of our existence? How does work move us closer toward (or further away from) said purpose?
Individual purpose takes on particular meaning within the context of a shared, collective purpose. Within the context of the Great Transition and the vision of the future shared by many across the globe, we can define our collective purpose as advancing both as individuals and as a united society. Indeed, advancement may be described as the continual flourishing of larger and larger segments of humanity, made possible through harmonious relationships among the various constituents comprising it. In the context of collective advancement, each individual has a twofold moral purpose. First, each person has the responsibility to exert great effort throughout his or her entire life in order to develop the unique, innate talents and capacities that are latent within. Second, these talents and capacities should be used to contribute to the advancement of civilization. The nexus connecting the two is service. As one serves one’s fellows and one’s community, one’s own talents and skills are further honed and sharpened.
The question of meaningful work also draws us directly to the question of education and its role in preparing children and youth to participate in a Great Transition. So much of our conception of work, meaning, and purpose is shaped through our education. A reconceptualization of what is meant by work (and leisure) must go hand in hand with a transformation in education. We likely all agree that the identities of young people need to be shaped within the system of education on a broader foundation than “future workers.” Such a view limits the scope of education and is undoubtedly a contributing factor to the weakening of social fabric we are all experiencing. Education is one of the most potent instruments in shaping thought and reality, and it must not be limited by a conceptual framework that regards it in terms of “input/output” or treats children merely as future laborers going through a 12–13-year training program. We have only to look at our history as a species, at the stories playing out on the news every day in every country, to understand that we each have latent powers for construction and destruction within us. Education fulfills its purpose by teaching children how to channel their individual energies, talents, and skills for the common good. Essentially, education must be concerned with helping students to fulfill their twofold moral purpose. By challenging and enabling students, and everyone, to participate more meaningfully as co-creators of the future, our lives would be infused with meaning, and all of our communities, and our very processes of governing, would be all the better for it.