Capitalism Can’t Give Us Meaningful Work

The failure to provide meaningful work to the vast majority of the population is a powerful indictment of our economic system — one more promise capitalism makes but can’t keep.

The failure to provide meaningful work to the vast majority of the population is a powerful indictment of our system — one more promise capitalism makes but can’t keep.

In the mid-nineteenth century, socialist William Morris articulated a famous dilemma: “Meaningful work or useless toil?” He believed the working class performed a socially valuable function, but derided the notion that all work was meaningful, saying it was “a convenient belief to those who live on the labor of others.”

Yet there was indeed work, he said, that was “not far removed from a blessing.” The crucial difference was that some work came with the hope that it would bring well-deserved rest.

Quite a different conception prevails today. Meaningful work isn’t the guarantor of hoped-for leisure, but rather a reason to work more. The hours of all wage and salary workers in the United States have increased by 13 percent since 1975, which is about five extra workweeks per year. And though we are inundated with stories of overworked professionals, the hours of low-wage workers, who are disproportionately women, have increased the most.

During that same time period of stagnating wages, rising hours, and declining union density, the elite invocation to “do what you love” became the “unofficial work mantra of our time.” Why?

The most popular explanations for this phenomenon suggest that “company culture” has led us astray. In the New York Times, journalist Erin Griffiths says her generation “pretends” to love work. Lured by the vacuous promises of #hustleculture, her fellow millennials foolishly waste the best years of their lives “performing workaholism.” Derek Thompson at the Atlantic argues that what he calls “workism” is “among the most potent new religions competing for congregants,” a trend he says “defies economic logic.”

But what if it affirms economic logic? What if hustle culture is simply a corollary to hustle economics?

The meaningful work discourse is easily deployed these days as a capitalist shibboleth because we have indulged for so long in the fantasy that hard work equals just rewards. We’re right to be skeptical of that narrative, given how bosses cynically wield it to wring more work out of workers. But we shouldn’t let such cynical rhetoric make us forget something basic: we all deserve meaningful work — and capitalism can’t give it to us.

Blue-Collar Blues

In 1972 the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare convened a bizarre hearing on working-class alienation. The hearing addressed a countrywide crisis of worker discontent that involved a detailed study of what came to be called the blue-collar blues.

Workers were overworked and, according to the committee, “increasingly dissatisfied by working conditions even if they are satisfied by their paycheck.” The country outside the factory was “mesmerized by the industrial machine and unable to see the man behind the machine,” which led to a situation in which “the non-economic needs of the worker have been forgotten . . . producing a class of angry and rebellious workers.”

The committee saw its job as to study this phenomenon and make recommendations that would “encourage the humanization of working conditions and the work itself,” remedies that included more flexible schedules and a reduced workweek.

At some point, the committee heard testimony from Dan Clarke, an autoworker from Lordstown, Ohio, site of a famous wildcat strike against speedups, long hours, and industrial monotony. Clarke addressed his union official, who was present at the hearing, and said that the United Auto Workers (UAW) is “too concerned with wages and petty things. . . . They better start thinking of a man’s mind and his relaxation.”

Lordstown, Ohio strike, 1972.

Clarke’s hope — and he was not alone — lay not just in more union power to transform the workplace, but an erosion of the dangerous and monotonous conditions of mid-century industrial work. An emerging trend toward white-collar service work might have seemed like a reasonable alternative. And it is exactly this transition that marks the second explanation for the meaningful work discourse.

Nonroutine analytical and interpersonal work, as a percentage of overall employment, surpassed manual routine jobs in the early 1970s. As a result, over the past four decades, work in general has required more human decision-making and cognitive input.

“The move to a high discretion workplace has elevated the work ethic to a position of strategic importance,” Daniel Yankelovich and John Immerwahr write.

Their 1983 study found that increased job discretion — the degree of subjective input that workers have at work — meant that when the economy was dominated by jobs in which one person could simply replace another on an assembly line, there was little rationale for looking for deeper meaning at work. But tasks that require initiative will only be completed if workers have a degree of buy-in and will do them without constant supervision. The new work ethic, replete with internal significance, arose when individual effort to master a particular task began to matter more in the production process.

When a 1962 poll asked respondents to describe their “formula for success in today’s America,” a mere 6 percent cited a meaningful job. Twenty years later, a similar question elicited 49 percent. In the mid-eighties, Yankelovich found that “a significant number of jobholders now see self-development as their primary motivation for working.” In 1968, 58 percent of the public agreed that “hard work always pays off,” but only one-third of workers endorsed this view on a similar survey in the early eighties. As the economic bargain began to break down, so did the culture that connected work solely to money.

But white-collar workplaces only redesigned the flaws of industrial work. They were maddening and boring and uninspiring, too, and provoked a similar backlash: the white-collar woes.

White-Collar Woes

The scions of tech launched a revolt against the relentless conformity of cubicle life, a movement to overcome the sense of alienation and discontent plaguing so many offices across the country. Jobs were boring, hours were long, life was short, and a critical mass of young computer geeks thought there was a better way. Offices — once full of lofty hopes about a more sociable future of work, the refuge of those spared the indignity of factory labor — had become partitioned wastelands of broken promises and dreams deferred. Indeed, by the late 1970s, they had begun to feel much like factories themselves.

Central to that pushback was Silicon Valley, where the sixties counterculture went to cash in. The valley’s new businesses were built by couriers of this new Zeitgeist, who proselytized that hard work and long hours were their own reward.

Douglas Coupland captured that consummate passion for tech world work in his prophetic 1995 novel Microserfs, in which a group of nerdy engineers who hate their jobs at a fictional buttoned-down IBM move from Redmond, Washington to Silicon Valley in search of more self-actualizing work. Their new home is literally the light of their life, constructed with just the right illumination streaming through plate-glass facades and spatial harmony to create beauty and intimacy.

As they grow tired of chasing venture capital, which always seems just out of reach, one programmer has a startling revelation: “I would have come here for nothing. I never had to get paid. . . . It’s never been the money. It rarely ever is. It wasn’t with any of us — was it?”

For a while, it seemed these complaints about meaningless work reflected not only the exploitative nature of work, but also the prophetic demands of the New Left. Campus activists, feminists, and even young technologists sought to rescue work from its alienating quality — or to abolish it altogether.

This seductive possibility calls to mind Marx’s remark about human nature, which he explains by noting the difference between the worst of architects and the best of bees: the former erects the structure first in the mind, the latter builds on instinct. The creative imagination at work is, in other words, the most fundamental hallmark of our humanity.

But history is cunning. What has become known as the “new spirit of capitalism” meant that the demands for more creative and fulfilling work dovetailed with the needs of a business class to regain their power and profitability during the crises of the late seventies.

An expanding class of managers, supervisors, business leaders, advertisers, writers, gurus, and others intercepted these new demands for meaningful jobs and repackaged them as a new ideology of work. The result was the popular discourse on meaningful work we have today, which encourages finding personal worth and fulfillment in one’s job as a part of the job itself. This managerial revolution was successful because it seemed to deliver something we already desired.

Nonetheless, maybe those for whom jobs seem the least meaningful hold the key to reforming our working lives. The phenomenon of meaningless work illuminates the contradiction at the heart of capitalism itself. Long hours at tedious jobs could have been avoided if we had prioritized policies that continued to reduce the workday and if workers were allowed greater control over their employment and schedules. Yet here we are.

Lane Kirkland, former president of the AFL-CIO, captured this resentment in one simple quip in 1979. “If hard work was so important,” he told a reporter when asked about laziness on the job, “the rich would keep it all for themselves.”

Meaningful Work and Shorter Hours

The widespread alienation that so many express today is an important critique of capitalism, making it unlikely that workers would be suddenly mollified by a raise in pay, despite how desperately needed such raises are. The Left should speak to the crisis of despair into which workers have fallen.

The failure to provide meaningful work to the vast majority of the population is a powerful indictment of our system — one more promise capitalism makes but can’t keep. Discovering a type of work and workplace organization that is truly engaging and empowering need not be a cynical or futile project, nor should it be dismissed as superficial. Rather, it carries with it the potential for larger political and social change.

If we have to work to live, we should demand legitimately meaningful work as a fundamental right. Such work should challenge and inspire our collective mental and emotional faculties and make a clear contribution to a better world. And a demand for more engaging work can also accompany a demand for shorter hours. We deserve more meaningful work, but we also deserve more of our precious waking hours to do what we will, rather than serving our boss.

If some of our work is unable to be meaningful, we should demand it be well paid and reduced to a minimum amount of time. Bosses are peddling us “meaning” instead of money or free time. That’s not good enough.