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Redefining "Meaningful Work"

January 3, 2011, 12:00 AM

The biggest issue facing us in the following year derives from the failure of economists and social scientists to provide good solutions to the economic crisis and unemployment facing not only the United States, but Europe as well. It appears that over time the prospects of gainful employment will continue to diminish for a large percentage of the population. It’s not only that manufacturing is going elsewhere in the world, but that increasingly industrial work can literally be done by machines.

As we live longer and fewer of us are needed to provide the essentials of life, how are we going to define meaningful work? What percent of the population is capable of finding significant employment that deserves to be compensated as a result of products or services worthy of being sold? At present, there are jobs in high technology and the upper end of health care. There are menial, low-paying jobs to which we do not ascribe dignity. And there are the needless and costly bureaucratic jobs subsidized by declining tax revenues. No wonder there is a spike in the inequality of wealth. A terrifyingly small percentage of the population owns the wealth, and a smaller percentage of the population is necessary for its continuance. The plausibility of communism collapsed twenty years ago, making way for the apparent triumph of the free market.

That ideology is headed toward its own trash bin. How can we construct a plausible set of values that have psychological traction and can lead to social structures and habits that provide a sense of purpose to people’s lives through work? A redefinition of service and of artisanship may hold promise, but so much of what we might invent will depend on the imagination: on learning and literacy, not on brute strength. The issue of play and leisure, and more important, the relationship of individual behavior to the realization of ideas of justice, all have to be considered. The big idea facing us is that the best of all possible worlds will never come if we continue doing what we’re doing now.

Last but not least, the reconciliation of notions of individuality and freedom with organized schemes of political and social organization has always proved difficult. If we don’t come up with better ideas to resolve them, we face the increasing growth of absolutist theocracies and dictatorships. Or as misery grows, perhaps the resentment of privilege and individuality will become greater and people will voluntarily drift into habits of uniformity and conformity. These are grim fears that derive from the death of the American consumer economy, where well-being and a sense of satisfaction have been tied to purchasing and owning. We need better answers, and we need to consider them carefully. The answers can’t be located in myths that recreate conflict by fashioning enemies out of those who are nothing more than mirrors of ourselves.

As to music and culture, let me say that superficially no activities could appear less significant to individual well-being and fulfillment in a period of economic distress, but they are now more crucial than ever. The making of music and the act of participating in cultural life beyond consumerism—e.g., amateurism—have always been renewable means of avoiding boredom and developing a sense of pleasure and self-respect.

Leon Botstein, President, Bard University

Image courtesy of Flickr user Seattle Municipal Archives.


Redefining "Meaningful Work"

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