Work, Economics and Meaning

I’m part of an online anthropology group at Open Anthropology Cooperative, which recently put forth this blog post about meaning at the workplace.

Alexander Lee writes:

“This article: Goodbye, Homo Economicus from Economist’s View voices concerns about the insufficiency of linking rational choice theory (with its model of humans as homo economicus, interested mainly in external measurable values of maximizing utility and minimizing cost).

What the “madmen in authority” heard this time was the distant echo of a debate among academic economists begun in the 1970s about “rational” investors and “efficient” markets. This debate began against the backdrop of the oil shock and stagflation and was, in its time, a step forward in our understanding of the control of inflation. But, ultimately, it was a debate won by the side that happened to be wrong. And on those two reassuring adjectives, rational and efficient, the victorious academic economists erected an enormous scaffolding of theoretical models, regulatory prescriptions and computer simulations which allowed the practical bankers and politicians to build the towers of bad debt and bad policy. …
Which brings us to the causes of the present crisis. The reckless property lending that triggered this crisis only occurred because rational investors assumed that the probability of a fall in house prices was near zero. Efficient markets then turned these assumptions into price-signals, which told the bankers that lending 100 per cent mortgages or operating with 50-to-1 leverage was safe. Similarly, regulators, who allowed banks to determine their own capital requirements and private rating agencies to establish the value at risk in mortgages and bonds, took it as axiomatic that markets would automatically generate the best possible information and create the right incentives for managing risks. …

The scandal of modern economics is that these two false theories—rational expectations and the efficient market hypothesis—which are not only misleading but highly ideological, have become so dominant in academia (especially business schools), government and markets themselves.

I am not familiar with the author of this article. Where the article stops, is in suggesting how economics could be reformed so that the internal models that build our current understanding of how resources and finances should be handled. That’s okay though, this is a blog about economics, not about meaning in the face of rational nihilism via utility… an understanding of money that is nearly a priori due to its near-circularity.

But if anything, the takeaway should be that our current system needs to change in some fundamental ways because of a lack of meaning in our workplace and the lack of integration between our system of resources and how people live.

It’s not enough to BS a company work-place environment. That environment needs to be genuine. People today are quite savvy at detecting bullshit. Likewise any meaning a company creates, like the lessons in a public classroom, for it to be meaningful, need to be integral to our personal lives, in some way. And that choice has to be allowed by each individual, we need a society that sets the proper conditions for such connections to thrive. What such a society should be, or how it should be transitioned onto is of course, a difficult but collective choice each of us needs to make on a daily basis.”

The next time you go to work decide for yourself, if this is what you ought to be doing. Not today or tomorrow, but next year, or ten years from now. Understand that maximizing a paycheck is like maximizing utility. Getting a pleasant job that is close by is like minimizing cost. Is that really the best way to live?

After all, in the journey of being alive, we collect things, bank accounts and stuff. It’s not been accepted that anyone who has died has come back to really talk about it. Even still, we all see that No, you can’t take it with you.

I find Lee’s argument very compelling, because it takes into account what Jill Fraser’s White Collar Sweatshop does not discuss — the affects, attachment, belief systems and interpretation of work that make it a deontological good. I used to work at a start-up company before the dot-com busts and we experienced morale boosts from the excitement of being at the brink of revolutionary innovation…that is, until we realized we were not going to get funding from venture capitalists and we had to make ends meet from our overly thinned bank accounts. I also worked at a computer store selling hardware parts. That store shut down. At the same time, I worked at a local restaurant, which also shut down shortly after I started working for them. (I promise I am not bad luck though!!) Because I was not intellectually stimulated by either job, I did not find meaning. I was glad to see the hours pass by. Sometimes they passed quickly if we had many clients, and other times the hours dragged on. I suppose I derived meaning from interacting with friends at the workplace, but even they wanted to rush home. When I think about the best work experiences I had, among them being an SAT tutor, a web programmer at my undergraduate university, working for the mayor of Maui on low-income housing projects (for a summer), teaching 9 to 17 year-old kids technology at a summer camp, and working on administrative and technical projects at a teachers credit union, there are several factors that contributed to meaning at the workplace:

1) I had relative high autonomy.
2) I was valued for creativity and individual thought tempered with group teamwork.
3) Compensation (both pay and benefits) were average or above average.
4) Workplace pressures were not overwhelming.

While I agree with Lee that we should concentrate on putting meaning at the workplace, this goal should supplement the goals of trying to make working conditions fair and less cumbersome, not substitute for them. We should not assume that meaning is completely separate from other factors, economic or otherwise. For example, in Viktor Frankl’s Search for Meaning that is referenced by Lee, logotherapy involved a form of separation from one’s situation because it was simply too difficult to deal with the pain of witnessing a loved one die. It says, like many self-help books — and I’ve probably read Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits a dozen times — that the individual must rise above her situation. While I find this notion hopeful and necessary in challenging times like those faced by Frankl, it seems most applicable when there are no other or few other options, for example, when stuck in a concentration camp. But when one does have the option of a career-change, asking the boss for a raise, changing companies, or uniting with other workers to go on strike, maybe that also provides meaning. That is to say, perhaps Lee is defining meaning a bit narrowly. It can be means to an end, or an end in itself. For some, the meaning might lie in fighting for better conditions. For others, it might solely be in providing for one’s family. It makes sense for knowledge workers to easily find meaning in one’s research, teaching and other areas due to the relative versatility and autonomy of the nature of this type of work. But what of toll-booth collectors? There is no doubt that while some people might find meaning in that type of work, it would probably be much more difficult than for other jobs due to the lack of autonomy and the repetitive nature of the work. It is also possible re-orienting or shaping meaning is a band-aid to a larger issue — namely the increasingly specialized and mechanical division of labor. Maybe those who are dissatisfied with being toll-booth collectors need more than to be told that they should somehow try to find meaning in their work. Aren’t some jobs much more difficult to find meaning in? Don’t some people have to perform these jobs nonetheless? It seems clear that in situations like this, we need more than a search for meaning in order to improve the lives of workers.

The crux of Lee’s argument, I think, is about choice. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we had autonomy to do what gives us meaning? Lee brings up a good point about finding meaning at work. But perhaps the solution is that we should be able to find work that gives us meaning. It might be the case that some jobs simply by nature are meaningless. This is not to say an individual out there may not find meaning in that particular job, but that the onus should not be placed on the individual to make meaning at the job or to accept corporate propaganda. There is no meaning in increasing work pressures, workloads, and declining levels of career and financial security, which Jill Fraser has claimed leads to less emotional attachment and also, less time and energy to spend with one’s family and children. Given a lack of choice due to economic pressures, we are forced to find “work meaning” elsewhere — in social relationships, in civic engagements, in civil society, and in our homes. Given a set of choices, we can decide whether we want to hunt in the morning, criticize at night, or do both. First increase autonomy. Perhaps then, meaning will naturally follow.


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