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

Solution I: Purpose

One possible path is the currently ubiquitous Purpose – is there salvation when companies specifically target an employee’s sensemaking at work?

The idea that companies should pursue a specific purpose because this is where both economic and social interests converge (Carlisi et al., 2017) enjoys remarkable popularity in management. Here, such a purpose beyond the sense of profit is defined as »the enduring aspiration of an organisation, formed around a need in the world that the organisation is willed to serve with its inherent strengths (…)« (Grice et al., 2019, p. 1); but, mind you, this is not about the individual purpose of the employee.

There is a risk of confusion here: Purpose understood as a role in the world of the company, as a more conscious location in complex adaptive systems (Reeves et al., 2018) is important to move from the notion of the company as an isolated profit maximising machine to an organic understanding of business(es) (Rusinek, 2020). For this, the company must be able to address an individual‐​emotional dimension of meaning (meaning as a motivation driver – »The work makes sense«) and connect this with a collective‐​objective dimension (meaning as an organisational goal – »This strategy makes greater sense to us«) (Fink & Möller, 2018).

But: the individual‐​emotional dimension cannot meet the comprehensive needs for meaning of a modern individual (just because work is making any sense to me, it does not realize my much more existential search for meaning in the world). Nor should it. What is dangerous in the Purpose debate is an exaggeration of the individual dimension: if all the attention is solely on how to make work the centre of meaningmaking for employees and not so much on what a collective and lived corporate responsibility means, Purpose only stabilises the status quo (Grice et al., 2019) and treats the employee as an empty vessel to be filled with managerial answers to a personal longing for meaning in the world.

Such corporate behaviour is shown by greedy organisations (Coser, 2015). They absorb people with all their emotionality and all social connections (Laudenbach, 2019). We know it from cults, guerrilla associations, or Leninist cadre parties. In varying degrees, we also see this in contemporary companies, which often expect their employees to do extra work with constant enthusiasm under the headline Purpose. In the process, these organisations like to call themselves a ›family‹ or a ›tribe‹, forgetting that most people have moved away from their family to grow up and that we have overcome tribal structures for similar reasons. So the temporary dissolution of the boundary between private person and professional practice only exploits the individual’s sense of purpose, but it does not really answer it, nor does it really care.

Corporate Purpose is an important answer, but just to a different question; it is about the purpose of the company, not of the search for meaning for the employee.

It is worth pausing and asking oneself whether the question of an individual’s purpose can be answered not only from within the individual and perhaps not at all on a linguistic, but transcendental level. This also makes it clear why companies can certainly find their purpose, but finding meaning for individuals is much more difficult and above all a private matter.

Solution II: Hybrid work

It is therefore more helpful to question the question itself. The question of the one meaning through the one job shows that wage labour is the only pillar of identification on which we currently construct ourselves as individuals and as a society – for now! But the transition to a fluid future of work questions the question for meaning at work itself for at least three reasons:

First, this over‐​identification with work has been proven to make us sick. Psychotherapy teaches how unstable it is to construct one’s identity on a single activity. Work is overloaded with identity needs. In the post‐​industrial world, our work is less and less tangible, we are never quite finished, never quite satisfied, and we exploit ourselves. We lack the tangible sense of meaning that gives us self‐​worth; sources of meaning such as religion or family have also dried up. All this pressure for meaning then leads quite practically to many people answering emails on Sundays rather than going to the cinema on Monday evenings.

But it is not only the overidentification with work that will make such a cyclopean understanding of work difficult in the future: most of the jobs that exist today may soon disappear. Artificial intelligence will replace humans in more and more professions. New professions will emerge: like designers of the virtual world. But it is naïve to think that all insurance agents will retrain to do this and another question whether we want to imagine a virtual world created by ex‐​insurance agents, as Yuval Harari (2017) writes. He therefore asks about the meaning of life in a world precisely without or with less work. Which puts our opening question on its head.

Last but not least, the question of meaning in that one job is based on an understanding of work that has always excluded many things: care work, household work, voluntary work. This narrow concept of work cannot have its place in the future, if we want to understand it normatively, as a better future.

Once this cyclopean view of a job is overcome, what will take its place?

Perhaps something we could call hybrid work: We are already seeing the first signs of this, for example when we hear newcomers to the profession say things like »I can’t work on Fridays because I’m working on my graphic novel«.

Hybrid work is based on a »support leg – free leg« conception: one job for stability, the other for exploration. It creates psychological security because it reduces the pressure to make sense of a job – and has even been proven to increase performance in the old job (Sessions et al., 2020). It creates innovation, because the future could lie in the areas of tension between both jobs, and it makes room in society for an activity beyond employment for money, where work is once again understood as it was by St Bernard: he spoke of active love and not of paychecks.

Great hybrid workers show us the way: look at what the photographer Arnold Odermatt made of his time as a policeman. That Max Frisch was an architect in the mornings can still be seen today in a swimming pool in Zurich. Perhaps the »narrative imagination« of Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, praised by the Nobel Prize Committee, comes from her work as a psychologist, and the relaxed flow of the rapper Dexter from the fact that he is actually a paediatrician?

Hybrid work does not negate the question of meaning in work, but puts it on the right footing: it is not work that brings me meaning, but I bring meaning to work, as a lawyer who is also a swimming teacher, as a baker who sings, as an engineer who is a writer.

Thus, the future of the question of professional meaning lies in an opening that brings us back to the real question behind it: the meaning of our lives and how we shape them as free human beings.

(First published in: Hans Rusinek »Arbeit und Sein – Von Sinndruck, Purpose und hybrider Arbeit«; first published (2020). In J. Nachtwei & A. Sureth (eds.), Sonderband Zukunft der Arbeit (HR Consulting Review, vol. 12, pp. 98101). VQP. )

About the author: Hans Rusinek conducts research on the transformation of work at the University of St. Gallen and is a member of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s Social Market Economy Doctoral Programme. Previously, he was associate strategy director of the Boston Consulting Group’s purpose consultancy, BrightHouse. He participates in debates between business and society, for example in BrandEins or Deutschlandfunk. In 2020, he won the Ludwig Erhard Foundation’s Business Journalism Award for his work. Rusinek is a fellow in the ThinkTank30 of the Club of Rome. He studied economics, philosophy and politics at the London School of Economics and in Bayreuth.


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