The Importance of Meaningful Work

Too often, business students see little overlap between the jobs they plan to do — and those they consider most socially responsible or would most enjoy.

Image courtesy of Flickr user kadavoor.

Many employees today are motivated by an interest in meaningful work, not just economic rewards. A number of forces contribute to this search for meaning at work. On a generational level, older workers near retirement may be looking for work that is potentially more fulfilling, even if it is less economically rewarding. Meanwhile, the desire for meaningful work also seems pervasive among today’s young entry-level workers, a generation known, at least in the United States, for a lack of organizational loyalty and a demand for a flexible work environment. Finally, for people of all ages, greater social and environmental consciousness is affecting consumption patterns while also influencing the labor supply. For instance, concern about climate change has expanded interest in career possibilities in renewable energy and is stimulating product and process innovation. What role do business schools have in preparing our students to choose meaningful work? For a number of years, I have conducted a classroom exercise on meaningful work that is the basis for a forthcoming article in the 2009 issue of the Journal of Business Ethics Education. In the exercise, undergraduate and graduate business students are asked three questions over the course of an academic term: 1. A year out of this program, what do you expect your job will be? This is the pragmatic question of market fit, the near-term reality that loans need to be repaid, foundations built and families supported — often prior to the full-on pursuit of one’s dreams. 2. What kind of job contributes the most to general well-being? In philosophical parlance, this is the normative question of social responsibility, referring to what we should do — not necessarily what we are motivated to do for self-realization or economic necessity. 3. Practicality aside, if you could be doing anything 10 years from now, what would it be? This is the “dream job” question, as close as business students come to defining what they are really all about, what would promote “self-realization.”

Related Article

C. Michaelson, “Teaching Meaningful Work: Philosophical Discussions on the Ethics of Career Choice,” Journal of Business Ethics Education 6 (2009), in press.

What has been most striking is that there is almost no overlap among students’ answers to the three questions.

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7 Comments On: The Importance of Meaningful Work

  • mphcoach | February 8, 2010

    I wonder if the problem is simply due to a lack of experience, as personified by the ‘mid-life crisis’ the epitomizes so many lives at a certain age.

    The dawning that what they took on was simply not their authentic self, for whatever reason. Usually this is advice; shared experiences of others; cajoling; the careers teacher and peers.

    It isn’t necessarily what they want, but with little real evidence or confidence, there’s nowhere else to go, so there’s that easy option (to please someone else).

    Martin Haworth

  • Vijay Kumar | February 15, 2010

    Self realization is just not a spiritual word used in relation to ethics and philosophy! Self realization has a deeper connotation… in English it simply stands for reaching stage of enlightenment (kaivalya jnana)! Gaining self realization means becoming a man God like Mahavira, Gautama Buddha, Jesus Christ or Prophet Mohammed!

    Reaching stage of self realization announces culmination of all things spiritual! The stage of self realization can be reached by any establishing absolute control over five senses and mind. Furthermore practice of absolute celibacy for a minimum period of 12 years in continuation is also necessitated! Self realization is the highest stage that can be achieved by human beings!

  • Michele Johnson | August 3, 2010

    @ Vijay Kumar wow! this is a real nice peace of info. Thanks for it. Regarding Meaningful Work. I think the purpose of job beside making money should be grooming the intelect of a person so that she can get best out of her going forward in the life.

  • Martin the career aptitude guy | August 21, 2010

    Amazing, though not surprising, that the three answers did not overlap at all. I have dedicated the last ten years of my life to “personality centric living” as it is my belief that it is simply not possible to be successful unless you are working in harmony with your personality.

    There is a free personality test on careerpsychometrics.com that students can use to help them think about what they should be doing with their life.

    Young people are poorly advised early on, which leads to many years of people working in the wrong job. It usually takes about 20 years to figure this out and maybe do something about it.

  • rafael portillo | August 31, 2010

    Indeed, people nowadays are just motivated to work because of the compensation that they will get from their job. it is in this sense that man is being alienated. His work seems to alienate him from his very nature…..

  • Alice Newton | January 10, 2011

    I think it’s so often the case that students in college or people early on in their careers are driven by the desire for the all mighty dollar only to find later in life that they need a more personally rewarding and meaningful career to achieve some level of satisfaction.

  • subhankar.sinha@gmail.com | March 8, 2013

    To me, Meaningful Work is something which is aligned with my Purpose, something which I Value most. Purpose and Value System is defined by my life experiences. Work can be categorized in three broad buckets – Job, Career and Calling. I see Meaningful Work is something which is a Calling. I would like to refer an article from Michigan Ross School of Business on Job Crafting. Hope you would enjoy reading it. http://www.bus.umich.edu/Positive/POS-Teaching-and-Learning/Job_Crafting-Theory_to_Practice-Aug_08.pdf

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