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What is the Purpose of Work?


30Jul 2007

“What is the purpose of work?” is both a personal question for me and a key question for many of the families with whom I work (although they don’t necessarily ask it directly like that). Consistent with the stereotype of a hardworking Midwestern farmer, I am a pretty hard-working guy (I am not a farmer, but come from that heritage). So I work fairly long hours, but probably more importantly, I work consistently — not taking many days off or vacations. Not bragging. Not looking for either respect or sympathy. Just describing the situation.

And the question, “What is the purpose of work?”, is relevant to many of my clientele families at many levels. For many, they no longer have to work in order to support themselves or their families. They have been successful in business, investing, or wealth-creation of some kind and now have sufficient financial resources for the rest of their lives. But most (not all) continue in some form of work — investing their time, energy and intellectual capital in new endeavors. Why?

And the purpose (or meaning) of work intersects their lives at another level — their children (and sometimes grandchildren) either currently have or will have access to more than enough money and financial assets that they really will never have to work in order to support themselves or their families. So the question becomes: Why should they work? (or even prepare for working through education?) A somewhat easy question to answer at a theoretical or principle-based level, but far more difficult in real life conversations when your kids ask the question.

I am not presupposing I have all the potential answers to these questions, but I have thought it through some (and discussed the issue with a lot of people). So here are some of my thoughts.

First, let me define what I mean by “work”. I am talking about meaningful and productive life activity. It does not only mean a paying job — most adults do some forms of work that are not paying (making meals, doing the dishes, lawncare, paying the bills, laundry) — although many wealthy individuals and families hire these tasks out to others. I think probably the most undervalued form of non-paying work is parenting, and more specifically, mothering. Mothers work long, hard hours; they don’t get paid; and they don’t typically get much in return (accolades, thanks, recognition). Mothering is, flat out, a tough job. There are additional non-paying jobs in the forms of community service and volunteering. So work is not defined by payment in this context.

In fact, that segues into one of the core questions about work in our culture today — if you have enough money, why work? And the converse of this question actually is the implicit (and sometimes explicitly stated) goal for many — “I want to get rich and have a lot of money so I can quit my job and never have to work again!” Aside from fame, I think this is the primary driving force for those who desire to be professional athletes, movie stars, entertainers, record producers, and possibly many entrepreneurs.

The inferred meaning of work from this perspective is: The purpose of work is to make money.

So if you have “enough” money (which is a personal definition), you don’t have to work. This is where the dilemma intersects with children and heirs of significant financial wealth — if the primary purpose of work is to make money, and we have all the money we need, why should I go get a job? And why should I study hard in school to get a job I don’t need?

The problem is, from my perspective, this is a limited view of work. Work, besides making money, is meaningful daily life activity — making something, serving someone, providing something of worth to others (either individually or to the community in which you live [local or globally]). And I believe it is woven into the nature of humans to both desire meaningful, productive activity and to gain satisfaction from the same.

This actually creates some challenges in some kinds of work — you don’t always see the product of your time and effort. In my field of counseling and consulting, my “products” are somewhat ethereal. You can’t always see the results of my efforts (sometimes not immediately, but later; sometimes for a brief time period and then they seem to dissipate; sometimes not ever!) So I counteract this by doing more physical tasks in my avocational time — trimming trees, writing an article — a task where I can see some type of visible result.

Now, for me personally, I am not in the situation where I am able to “not work” (for pay). I still need income to support my family. But even for me, I ask (especially when I am weary or discouraged) — besides earning money, for what purpose am I working? What am I trying to accomplish? What am I accomplishing? Does it matter? To whom? (And does it matter if it makes any difference to someone else?) [To those of you with whom I work, I am not indirectly looking for accolades or reassurance of my efforts — I am letting you in on my internal thought processes.]

One of the reasons I went into the counseling profession initially was because I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, rather than manufacture (or sell) some physical object that may or may not really enhance the quality of anyone’s life. But that is a value decision on my part. And even so, is that the core reason to work — to make a difference in people’s lives, or to improve the world? Maybe, maybe not.

Besides these reasons, what are other purposes of work? For some, there is a spiritual aspect. For others, work can be the mechanism through which they discover themselves and become all they were meant to be.

Realistically speaking, I think work can become the measure by which we attempt to gain self-worth (to some, being a Vice President of a company means you are better as a person than if you were a factory assemblyman). And I think it is also a way we try to gain acceptance or recognition from others — other people will think more of us if we are more “successful” in our careers. No judgment here on these, just laying it on the line.

So the question remains — what is the purpose of work? Why do you do what you do? Is it just because you “have to” (or you feel you have to)? Think about it.

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A related, interesting question to me is: what is the purpose of leisure? (Especially since, from my perspective, our culture pursues leisure like a cocaine addict pursues their next fix.)

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