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“Spoiled young people” and the myth about meaningfulness

Young people today are not being picky and spoiled when requiring work to be meaningful, but demonstrating an age-old fundamental need and sign of mental health.

I have heard it so many times. From grandpas at dinner parties, aunties at family gatherings, strangers commenting online.

“When I was your age, we didn’t think about meaningfulness of work and other newly invented nonsense things. We took a job because we had to, and that was it.”

And: “The kids today want meaningfulness from their work because all their other needs have been met. Apparently we have now gotten so high up in the Maslow need hierarchy that we now need work to be fulfilling, too. Oh the times we live in!"

These comments showcase an acute lack of understanding of the concept of “meaning” and what it means for work to be meaningful.

“Meaningful" is not a synonym for “pleasant” or “fun”. Quite far from it. It is something much more fundamental: a basic human need we only became aware of once we started creating and working on bullshit jobs*.

*A job which exists mainly to produce ​a reason for existence for another job.

The misconception consists of a few stubborn myths. To question them, I claim that the need for meaningfulness of work is...

  1. ...not new
  2. ...not a luxury
  3. ...not “a new top level” in (Maslow’s) need hierarchy, but one at the very bottom right after survival

Every single action we as humans take needs to make sense in order for us to take it. I brush my teeth, because I choose to rather use two minutes doing something that I find quite boring than have a bad taste in my mouth, rotting teeth and gum diseases. Also, I clean my house regularly, because I choose to rather use one hour every Saturday morning doing something a bit repetitive and dull than to hang out in a messy house. Both teeth brushing and house cleaning are very meaningful activities to me, as I guess they are to most people.

In the context of work, a job is meaningful when you feel that the work you put in (“input") creates something valuable to you (“output”). For example, if you work in a grocery store, your main input could be using 8 hours a day working as a cashier, and your main output could be your paycheck. If and when you really need that paycheck, that work would probably feel very meaningful to you, as you’d need that money to pay for rent and food - both pretty essential things for staying alive.

“Plain jobs” are often used as counter examples for the requirement of meaningfulness of a job. “Look at this man working in a field 100 years ago - he didn’t think about whether it was meaningful or not, he just shoveled and hoed away!” ​

This logic is quite flawed. Working in a field a century ago in a village where there wasn’t enough food for everyone was most likely extremely meaningful. Doing one extra hour after a 10-hour work day on the field every now and then was necessary. It was meaningful, too: in an imaginary example of a village with enough food for 10 kids, 10 % extra food on the table meant being able to feed one more kid. Hard to think of outcomes of work more meaningful than that.

If I could now do anything - anything - in one hour (or 10, for that matter) to save a kid’s life, I would do it in a heart beat. I bet you would too.

Jobs have changed quite a bit in 100 years. That century is just a blink of an eye in the history of humanity, but a quite significant one in terms of how we Western people use our time every day.

Let’s think of a more or less normal and representative job in 2017 for a middle-class Western person. Let’s take as an example the work of a project manager in a risk management department of a large insurance firm. For that project manager, doing one extra hour after a 10-hour work day is sometimes necessary. It produces... what exactly? Neck pain, perhaps, but what else?

Our jobs have traveled a long way from what we experience as useful and meaningful. It is leading to us spending enormous amounts of human energy and intelligence, as well as natural resources, to things that may or may not create value in the real world. The thing is: with our current tools, we don't really even know.

For a modern Western average joe, to require meaningfulness from work is not selfishness. It is an act of bearing responsibility of how we use our time, and a fundamental sign of mental health. There is absolutely nothing noble about dedicating one’s energy to working on something that doesn't create real value in the 21st century - not for an individual, and definitely not for the society.

So what needs to be done?

​Two things. Firstly, we need to create better understanding of what kind of human action really creates more value than it destroys in the 21st century. This means a new challenge for us humans: WHAT should we focus our time, efforts, intelligence and resources on? We are building one concrete tool aiming at helping answer that question in various different contexts in The Upright Project, so I won’t rant more about it here.

Secondly, we need to collectively start making smarter and more conscious decisions on where we dedicate our skills and time.

This focus is needed more than ever. Work is changing, and some jobs are becoming extinct. But problems are not going anywhere. Quite the opposite: we are facing some trickier problems than ever before, such as climate change and mental health epidemics. If we don't collectively focus our energy to solve these problems that could threaten our survival as a species, the pleasure we get from random gadgets will be limited.

Who holds the power to fix this? We do. I believe that we, as Western people who enjoy the privilege to live and work in peace and freedom, hold the power to dedicate our skills to something that matters. With our freedom comes the responsibility to think not just about ourselves, but also about people around and after us. ​

Are we using that freedom? We are extremely good at building imaginary prisons for ourselves. Sometimes we blame the mortgage we took, the type of education we have, or paradoxically even our kids, for not practicing our responsibility. We often fail to remember that we are among the freest people who have ever lived on planet Earth.

We have the responsibility.
​Not the single mom in Kenya battling to keep her kids alive doing any job she can get. ​

​And those "spoiled kids"? It's a very healthy phenomenon that young people today aim to find jobs that make sense - and that they are even ready to take paycuts to be able to solve a problem they see as important. That means they are utilizing their brains and hearts we have spent many tax euros to cultivate, train and care for.

The Upright Project is gathering together a group of millennials who also consider impact factors crucial to their motivation to work in a certain organization. Our aim is to create a community for young doers who feel passionate about solving real problems, and to have a clear voice and message for employers trying to understand how the best talent is attracted today. The old toys are no longer enough, and that is a really healthy and positive thing for the future of humanity.

If you identify with these thoughts, ​you’re welcome to join our young doers' community!

Spoiled kids of today, thank you for your work on saving humanity.

Founder of the Upright Project
Engineer and action woman who thinks it's time we update our way of measuring value creation of companies.