Having it all: Meaningful Work and Money

Photo by Michelle Henderson on Unsplash

Photo by Michelle Henderson on Unsplash

In my previous blog post from 2019, I delved into the question of whether meaningful work truly exists. It’s an ongoing topic that has gained even more significance over the past few years. Since then, a significant reckoning has taken place between companies and their employees, with major events shaping the landscape of work.

First, we witnessed what many refer to as the Great Resignation, where employees decided to leave their jobs for various reasons, primarily driven by the realization that life is about more than just grueling work. This mass exodus served as a wake-up call for employers, and it is my hope that its impact will have a lasting effect, although only time will tell.

For some who resigned during this period, it was unfortunately followed by the Great Regret. Employees who switched jobs experienced a sense of remorse, which was likely due to a lack of clear evaluation processes when these Great Resigners switched companies and roles. This is not uncommon; many individuals tend to rely on surface-level information without further investigation, a type of “grass will be greener” situation. This is a frequent mistake that can be avoided (with the help of a career coach). If you don’t feel that the company is a good fit for you, it’s crucial to trust your instincts. I’ll delve deeper into this topic in a future post.

Following these periods, we find ourselves amidst an ongoing battle between companies pushing for employees to return to the office and employees resisting this change. At the heart of this conflict lies a profound yearning for something more meaningful than just a paycheck—something that encompasses work-life harmony and personal fulfillment. Many companies have fallen short in providing this meaningful element through work, prompting employees to seek fulfillment elsewhere to bridge the void they feel.

However, it’s important to note that the yearning for meaningful work is far from a novel concept. We have always desired it, albeit with different approaches or evolving expectations. Let’s revisit the essence of my original post, which can be summarized as follows:

  1. Meaningful work is subjective and depends on an individual’s perspective.
  2. Most people aspire to have both meaningful work and a high salary.
  3. Interestingly, the jobs that are deemed most meaningful are often not well-compensated (except for surgeons who happen to have the best of both meaning and pay).

The secret to finding meaningful work lies in cultivating a shift in mindset. When work itself becomes meaningful, it becomes its own reward, and the pursuit of generous financial incentives takes a back seat in motivating and retaining employees. Conversely, less meaningful work lacks intrinsic value, necessitating monetary rewards to motivate individuals to perform such jobs. This, of course, leads to the perverse situation where the most socially useful jobs are those that are paid the least, and others make lots of money yet are miserable. It may seem unfair but it’s the reality of how the labor market works.

Now, I’d like to turn the spotlight on you. What does meaningful work look like to you? What are your expectations when it comes to finding it? How do you determine if you have found it or not? Have you ever had a job that felt genuinely meaningful?

These are similar questions I ask new clients when they tell me that they ‘just’ want to find meaningful work. ‘Just’ – as if everyone else has it and they are the only ones that don’t (thank you, social media).

There seems to be a fair amount of confusion surrounding the concept of meaningful work and its existence. I want to believe meaningful work exists and that anyone who wants it can have it. This is one of the reasons I became a coach. Yet, I feel like the search for meaningful work is ineffective (ok, not something a coach would normally say) — or at least all this searching for it outside of yourself is in vain.

When we say ‘meaningful work’, it’s important to define it for ourselves.

PayScale did a survey of 500 jobs in 24 job categories (unfortunately coaches were not included) to find the most and least meaningful jobs. Participants were asked if they feel their job makes the world a better place.

Top-ranking categories in terms of most meaningful:

  1. Clergy members (all denominations)
  2. Tied in second place:
    1. Surgeons (also highest for pay)
    2. Post-Secondary English Language and Literature Teachers
    3. Directors of Religious Activities and Education

On the other end of the spectrum, parking lot attendants and (casino) gaming supervisors were deemed to have the least meaningful jobs.

Of course, it’s worth mentioning that this survey is entirely subjective. The notion of “making the world a better place” is open to interpretation, and each person’s definition of “better” may vary greatly. For instance, my version of “better” may differ significantly from that of a politician.

When most of us contemplate meaningful work, social services, firefighting, and education typically come to mind—jobs that serve others in ways we consider valuable. Paradoxically, the societal value we associate with these types of meaningful work is often undervalued in the economic realm, resulting in comparatively low salaries.

It’s important to recognize that most people desire both meaningful work and a high income, creating a dilemma in today’s reality. Unless you happen to be a surgeon, striking a balance between the two can be challenging. Ideally, no one should have to choose between meaning and financial stability, but let’s face reality, the current landscape often necessitates such trade-offs.

So, when you contemplate making the world a better place, what comes to mind? Are you envisioning significant societal issues or grand challenges that need to be addressed?

I used to think along those lines as well, but my perspective on meaningful work shifted. Maybe it might be better to focus on your local neighborhood. I encourage you to stay tuned for my next blog post, where I will share my evolved definition of meaningful work and the insights I have gained along the way. The search for meaningful work may seem like a futile endeavor, but perhaps it’s time to redirect our focus inward rather than perpetually seeking external validation.

Until then, keep pondering what meaningful work means to you and explore the possibilities that lie within. Remember, you have the power to shape your own career path and find fulfillment in the work you do.