Work and Being – Of Meaning Pressure, Purpose, and Hybrid Work


Work and Being – Of Meaning Pressure, Purpose, and Hybrid Work [restored version April 2023]

Meaning, purpose, future of work, hybrid work, sociology of work

In his guest article, Hans Rusinek deals with the increasing need for meaning at work and the resulting over‐ and under‐​identification. To this end, he first tries to trace the increasing pressure for meaning in relation to the workplace from a socio‐​historical perspective, in order to then examine two possible solutions: A turn towards Purpose as a purposeful orchestration of occupational meaning, and a turn away from the question of meaning in view of a more fluid and hybrid future of work.

»So, what do you do?« – at the heart of the modern world of work lies a paradox. First, work, and more specifically the question of what work one does, is the definitive source of dignity and self‐​worth in a person’s life (Graeber, 2019). Second, however, most people are massively dissatisfied with it (Gallup, 2018). The question is how both can be true at the same time and how it might be possible to relieve this tension.

How work became a centre of meaning
The fact that we seek a source of meaning, i.e. of non‐​material value, in work is – incidentally, just like the fact that something like romantic love counts when choosing our partner – a surprisingly recent phenomenon. Alain De Botton sees the origin, where love and work became more than mere conventions for making a living, in the transition to modernity in the 18th century (Founders Pledge, 2019). To be modern, then, is to demand a great deal from o your partner – and your job.

This phenomenon is intensifying in our late modernity in two ways (Reckwitz, 2019): with the structural change of deindustrialisation of the global North, the shift to knowledge work (e.g. innovation research, product design and marketing) began, while production moved to so‐​called ›low‐​cost regions‹. At the heart of knowledge work is the power of invention (Lazzarato, 1996), a constant creation of new impulses for a largely saturated society. It should be noted here that of course not all industrial jobs became knowledge jobs, but at the same time a large service precariat grew. But in order to make cognitively demanding knowledge work possible, the nature of work had to turn post‐​Tayloristic: Project work instead of hierarchies, collaboration instead of assembly lines and meaning instead of time clocks. A sense of meaning is what makes cognitive peak performance possible in the first place, and you can’t or don’t want to simply turn it off at the end of the day. With the knowledge economy, work became more and more of a means to an end (maintaining the standard of living) to an end in itself (deepening the quality of life).

At the same time, on a cultural level, the mainstream, inspired by the hippie movement, discovered the idea of self‐​actualisation for itself (Reckwitz, 2019). The subversive idea of unfolding one’s authentic self was linked to the bourgeois idea of maintaining and expanding status: We want to live our unique self, but we do not want to miss any bourgeois privileges for this, we even want to increase them through this (see positive psychology). This culture of successful self‐​realisation shapes our expectations of the job: we want to be recognised, not for simply doing it, but for filling it with our own specialness.

A third, economic‐​ethical component is added: why it is no longer enough to do one’s job properly in a given value system, why one must therefore outgrow one’s role (see the phenomenon of job crafting), is also because the company itself has dried up as a source of meaning. The moral bankruptcy (Collier, 2018) caused by tax scandals, abnormal pay gaps and crimes like Dieselgate, directs the question of meaning back into the arms of the worker.
These three issues, the transition to the knowledge economy, the synthesis of success and self‐​fulfilment, and the crisis of corporate confidence, lead to unfulfilled pressures for meaning at work. How is this to be resolved?