What is work?

We’d like to kick off these discussions with a basic question: What is work?

This helps us challenge our assumptions and imagine a different, and better, future.

So please share, ideally in a single line or paragraph, what “work” means to you!

That’s a tough one. Here’s one incomplete answer.

In the past, work contained all seven of the following elements:

  1. People
  2. Workplace
  3. Skills
  4. Specific knowledge relevant to the workplace
  5. Purposes
  6. Geography
  7. Pay

Nowadays, it seems we are left with only four (and even those are not certain anymore) -

  1. Skills
  2. Knowledge
  3. Purpose
  4. Pay

I wonder if even the above four can still be presumed to be constant. It’s quite possible that advances in AI would lead to even skills being redundant, eventually.

@Roey I like the way you’ve outlined a definition of work, and am curious to hear from members of our online community how they might rank these four items and their importance or relevance, and why. @jordangiali do you have any thoughts?

I’d also love to hear everyone’s perspective on the last item on both lists - pay. I think that there are many reasons that feed into job satisfaction, potentially the other elements (purpose, skills, knowledge, etc), but is the core of “work” compensation?

I’m interested to learn more about the relationship between work and purpose. What does this mean exactly, and why has this aspect of work grown in importance in recent generations? For example, a 2019 Gallup poll found mission and purpose to be the most important aspect of work for Millennials.

Speaking for myself, I think “purpose” is the most important thing.

I wouldn’t want to take a 9-to-5 job just for the money, even if I could use my skills there and gain knowledge, if it didn’t feel fulfilling.

Looking around in my social circle, I think that applies to more people of my age and background.

I realize we’re privileged, though. We’re all university-educated, from rich countries, able and willing to move - not just within countries, but within the EU - and most of us don’t have commitments like kids and mortgages that would make switching jobs harder.

I’d like to explore @BryanNamba’s question about whether the “core” of work is pay in reading through some of these thoughtful responses. In doing so, it may be valuable to view not one item from the list above in isolation, but rather each in context with each other. For example, one Princeton study found that a higher income does increase happiness — but only up to about $75,000 per year. Beyond that, other factors — such as an organization’s culture and values, are important influences on what defines the “core” of work and what we value. More here.

I think @Roey 's list looks like a great start, but I think one crucial piece is missing: output or product, i.e. what is the physical (or not-physical) result of your work, such as a car or a screnplay or a contract. To me, this idea of “what is the result or output” is importantly related to items in the list like purpose, but also meaningfully different.

@DanSelz -
I think the “output” in many jobs is something that’s relatively vague. What is the output of an HR manager, for example? Or the output of a worker on an assembly line?

But I do understand where you’re coming from. Many people define “meaningful job” as one that has a specific product / output that you can be proud of. I’m just not sure it’s relevant for all jobs.

@Roey , agree defining the precise output can be challenging, but I also think that’s true for the categories mentioned. “Purpose” in particular seems especially vague. I think the output of an HR Manger, might be something like a content, productive workforce. The output of a worker on an assembly line might be a particular widget or even a whole car (I don’t know if “solely responsible” needs to be a criterion of an output, I think your output could be part of your collaboration). But agree, these are challenging, interesting topics!

@DanSelz Agreed!

I’d like to add to @BryanNamba’s question, and @DanSelz’s comment. The reality is that most people work to get paid. And we are unlikely to stop AI, or continued consolidation, two trends which will decrease the total number of jobs by 30-40%. However if we start to think about how we can separate labor (an input) from compensation (an output), then the world of options opens up. If we were to broaden company ownership to create more passive income, then people could still benefit from the companies they are connected to as users or customers, generating passive income, and actually have more freedom to choose a job that it is meaningful to them. Ie: who cares if the robot took your job, if you’re still generating income from that position and you can now choose something more personally meaningful to you.

More simply put, I think its important that we recognize our privilege that most of us on this discussion receive purpose AND compensation for our work. Most people choose to work mostly for the compensation.

@gregbrodsky Completely agree. For most of the world, work is about getting paid. Purpose is often derived from family, community, and socio-religious structures. But in the West, as most of our basic needs are met, we can focus on deriving purpose from other aspects of our life like work.

So how did this happen? How did we end up with an economy and a society where some people both have the best-paying jobs and are able to derive meaning and satisfaction from their work while others don’t?

I realize others have touched on this, from David Graeber’s “bullshit jobs” to Daniel Markovits’ The Meritocracy Trap. There was also a great longread in The Atlantic a couple of years ago by Matthew Stewart, which argues the top 10 percent is the “new aristocracy”.

Honestly, @NickOttens , I think there are two reasons for that -

  1. The needs of society. Like it or not, someone has to work at “waste management” (that’s what they call garbage truckers today), or at picking up roadkill and cleaning the area. These are the DDD jobs that robots are expected to replace human beings at: Dirty, Dangerous, Dull.

  2. The workers themselves. Some people can find satisfaction, meaning and a higher purpose in everything they do. Yes, even cleaning up roadkill. Others struggle to find higher purpose in even the most inspiring jobs. I don’t think you can change that, with all honesty, unless you change people’s nature as the first step.

What do you think?

Agree on #2, sure. It’s not all about jobs, it’s about what people make of it. But I would push back on #1.

If we cared more about the job satisfaction of people who work “DDD” jobs, we would be willing to spend more and make those jobs redundant. To use your example, we’d have autonomous garbage trucks by now. Or a pneumatic garbage collection system in the city. Does the fact that we don’t not suggest that we don’t care (that much) that some people have to work dirty, dangerous and dull jobs?

I think we are moving in the right direction, though. Let’s not be too hard on ourselves. My grandparents came of age in a time when you were glad to have any job. They instilled those values in their children (my parents), who came of age in the work-work-work era of the 1980s. It’s a fairly relevant development that the idea of job satisfaction has become mainstream, I think. (And my grandparents would never understand how you could quit a job just because you don’t like it and without having another one lined up!)

I think the other thing to consider in this discussion of what is work changes with life and career stage so there’s a situational/relative piece to consider in the discussion. And can we please stop with the generational labels? A 22 year old with young children is working for different things than a 22 year old without a family.

To me, work is a means to an end, whatever that end may be. It should be fulfilling. It should be enjoyable. It’s not necessarily about what you are doing for work, but who you are doing it with and what the company is doing as well. The culture should align with your personal values.

This is a good point! I may have been a little too influenced about all this writing about how millennials are supposed to be completely different, which is probably overblown…

I’m curious what you think affects our perception of work, and what it should be.

I suspect it has to do with:

  • Age, or where you are in life. If you have children, a mortgage and other commitments, your idea of "work" probably looks different from somebody who is single and renting.
  • Wealth and education. If you're (born) middle- or upper class, you can *afford* to think different about work from somebody on a low income.
  • The overall economy. As some jobs are automated, others are outsourced, and others yet simply disappear, our definition of "work" necessarily changes.

What do you think?