What is the purpose of work?
Part of what drove my desire to explore a Quarter Life Crisis was dissatisfaction with what I spent 5 out of 7 days a week doing - a job I did not love. Collective middle-class wisdom suggests success is high paying jobs that are somewhat fulfilling. Emphasis on the somewhat. Certainly, there are few of us who are living the dream their 10-year-old-self envisioned for them. But do we rely too heavy on the excuse of ‘reality’ catching up to us to justify settling for somewhat? I find myself wanting to challenge that orthodoxy. Why can’t the purpose of work be more than a way to pay bills and afford a Tiguan?
Increasingly I believe people, at some point, define the purpose of work to live life — rather than viewing it as a central part of life itself in the grand sense. Often this choice seems to be made in pursuit of practical, and entirely worthy, causes such as family. Topics of conversation for the early twenties professional generally follows well-trodden paths of career trajectory, engagements, breakups and how rubbish the housing market is. It’s not a bad list of topics. Unless, like me, you don’t enjoy your work, you are single, and you aren’t affording a house at time soon.
I recently asked one of my mentors what he saw as the purpose of work. He viewed work through two lenses. The first, and rarest, was to see work as an end in itself — work genuinely coincides with your passions and strengths to exist as a fulfilling use of your time. The second, which he subscribed to, was that work was a means to an end — work may overlap with some of your passions, but its main function was to provide the means to pursue genuine passions outside of work. In his case he didn’t love his current job, nor did he hate it. He took what he could from it, but his main enjoyment came from wood and metal working — passions enabled by his salary.
As I came to realise through my own parents; the reality of dogs, kids, mortgages, and aging grandparents reasonably means that stability and certainty become career priorities — not the mythical top of Maslow’s triangle. Subsequently I watched my parents opt for lens two. They worked jobs which were enjoyable enough, but clearly the major focus was on affording school fees and building a family house. Such seemed to be the dynamic I observed from friends’ parents too. There was acknowledgement among their generation that some people did pursue ‘dreams’, some even achieved them, but such a pursuit was unusual and risky. The consensus being that the opportunity cost of chasing the white picket fence was to sacrifice career fulfilment. Given that this was a group of people who firmly believed in the virtues of hard work such a transactional approach makes sense; the dream of a family cost the dream of truly fulfilling work– an even balance sheet.
The consensus being that the opportunity cost of chasing the white picket fence was to sacrifice career fulfilment. Given that this was a group of people who firmly believed in the virtues of hard work such a transactional approach makes sense; the dream of a family cost the dream of truly fulfilling work– an even balance sheet.
Thinking further I struggled to find someone I knew who fell into the first category described by my mentor. Nearly everyone I could think of saw work as a necessary hurdle to reach the weekly, monthly, yearly finish lines representing what they wanted to be doing. This dynamic first struck me as gloomy — 5 days of means to get 2 days of ends, 48 weeks a year, every year. Something about that ratio seemed off. Yet, on a second viewing, this critique started to seem unhelpful and overly pessimistic. In a broad sense to even have a weekend off, or afford a hobby, was a luxury when compared to a vast majority of the planet. But, as I touched on in last week’s blog, we have a proclivity of looking up the totem pole to see what lies ahead rather than looking down at how far we’ve come. Obvious as it sounds, I started to realise the not everyone thought like me. Not everyone was so critical as to view employment as a burden, nor did they necessarily see anything wrong with the 5:2 ratio. I’ve become increasingly jealous of those who happily and willingly enjoy somewhat fulfilling work weeks, for if I could do so as well, I would be saving myself a considerable amount of stress and anxiety.
Call me a hard-work-dodging, self-centred whinging, technologically obsessed, narcissistic, smashed-avo-loving Zoomer but I feel the winds changing. Around me I notice a generational shift in the attitude towards work, both in a philosophical and pragmatic sense.
Philosophically propelled by overwhelming consumption of technology, social media immersion and increasing societal freedom, my generation are questioning the white picket fences our parents coveted. It has never been easier to compare your life with the lives of others, be it friends, family or complete strangers. Nor has it ever been simpler to research, plan and otherwise envisage what your life could be. As a result, my generation is aptly aware that their life could be different and have constant exposure to those who appear to have chosen to do something about it. Recent post-COVID workforce trends such as the great resignation combined with a growing demand for flexible arrangements suggests that these philosophical changes are beginning to shine through. People are willing to make a change in pursuit of self-actualisation, or, at the very least, they can identify a situation that could be improved and have enough self-belief to act.
Undoubtably linked to philosophical changes is the change in practical circumstances. My parents bought their first house for $55k at a time when my mum alone made $40k annually. I learnt this while debating with them about whether my generations’ laziness was costing us the middle-class dream. I conceded that my generation was, in some aspects, less resilient compared to theirs, but that it would be wrong for that to account the large discrepancy in current working conditions. In the face of increasingly divergent wage vs property price growth, rising interest rates, financial markets disconnected from reality and growing inflationary pressures it should not be surprising that people are deciding they can’t afford the suburban ideal.
While you may think such a bleak financial outlook would push people harder toward unfulfilling careers, the opposite is becoming true. Increasingly Zoomers are prepared to delay house purchases, marriage and kidsuntil their 30s; trends that are only slipping further to the right as the economic picture becomes ever more gloomy. In the face of such data, is it unsurprising that young people are willing to sacrifice on typical goals? With the rise of a gig economy, remote work, and increasingly lucrative social media-based careers there is more reason that ever for people to demand more than somewhat fulfilling work.
Taking a Hike
Job dissatisfaction, among other considerations, led me down the path of quitting my job to pursue overseas study. I thought that with the burden of unenjoyable work lifted I would suddenly understand the direction my life should take. Wrong. Instead of beautiful moments of intense clarity where a paved pathway to endless fulfilment lay clearly signposted ahead, I was left with the uneasy sense that I was, for the first time, truly understanding how little I knew about where to go. I had no idea if I wanted to return to the Defence Force. I was only vaguely interested in other jobs within my career field. I was unsure what country I might like to live in.
All these questions I had asked myself diligently while working. I didn’t have any answers then. But that was fine, I had a career to focus on and all these things would surely work themselves out. However, in quitting I no longer had the luxury of cognitive dissonance. I could no longer hide behind work as a reason to ignore more central questions of purpose — my shield had disappeared, and my sword was rusted.
In other words, it became apparent that since 18 my purpose as an individual had subtly, and almost imperceptibly, merged with my goals as an employee. It’s likely that this fusion was exacerbated by the inherently all-consuming nature of military employment, especially since I had been under the government’s protective wing since I was 18. Even still, I find it telling that at no point can I remember having a serious life goal, tied to personal ideas of purpose, that wasn’t somehow intertwined with my career. It was thoughts of X promotion, Y posting, and Z job offer that both propelled me forward and, to an embarrassingly large extent, formed the basis of my self-worth. There is nothing wrong with an identity that coalesces around your work — providing you enjoy what you do to a large extent.
In contemplating my departure from the military, I applied for numerous jobs domestically, as well as numerous masters’ degrees internationally. Murphy’s Law dictated that I would be accepted into my ideal master’s program on the exact same day I was offered a particularly lucrative job — an offer that required a decision within 24hours. Surprisingly I felt little hesitation in respectfully declining the job offer. While I wanted a career, I realised that I wasn’t prepared to make only marginal improvements on my current position — I wanted a full renovation.
In short, I want to reconstruct the purpose of my work so I can view things through lens one. Because I currently don’t. I have no idea what viewing work ‘as an end in itself’ looks like or how to get there. None. But at least I know what it does not look like, so that’s something. The classic saying of ‘do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life’ rings particularly true to me. Yet it seems so obvious, and so rarely followed, that I must be missing something. Or, perhaps, it’s obviousness belies a level of sacrifice and struggle I am unwilling to go through. Either way, I am prepared to look for a resounding answer if it prevents years of quiet wonderment.