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Meaningful Work - essay by Thomas Sowell

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Thomas Sowell attacks the idea of "meaningful work" as popularly used, and he may well have a point. It is productivity that is the primary meaning of work, not its enjoyableness.

excerpt:

What is "meaningful work"?

The underlying notion seems to be that it is work whose performance is satisfying or enjoyable in itself. But if that is the only kind of work that people should have to do, how is garbage to be collected, bed pans emptied in hospitals or jobs with life-threatening dangers to be performed?

Does anyone imagine that firemen enjoy going into burning homes and buildings to rescue people trapped by the flames? That soldiers going into combat think it is fun?

In the real world, many things are done simply because they have to be done, not because doing them brings immediate pleasure to those who do them. Some people take justifiable pride in working to take care of their families, whether or not the work itself is great.

Some of our more Utopian intellectuals lament that many people work "just for the money." They do not like a society where A produces what B wants, simply in order that B will produce what A wants, with money being an intermediary device facilitating such exchanges.

What Sowell sees in this idea of "meaningful work" is scorn for the commercial mindset.

It was painful, for example, to see an internationally renowned scholar say that what low-income young people needed was "meaningful work." But this is a notion common among educated elites, regardless of how counterproductive its consequences may be for society at large, and for low-income youngsters especially.

Does anyone know the reference? Merely googling the phrase "meaningful work" didn't solve the mystery.

A semi-random integration that occurs to me with another instance of a similar idea appearing, is that in the game BioShock there is a line of dialogue by a character who is being disillusioned away from the idealism that drew him to the underwater city of Rapture when he realizes he will probably not be a rich or famous capitalist hero, but rather one who "cleans the shitters." But the moral case for liberty was never "it will make you rich" but that it is necessary for a moral society of peace and cooperation.

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Work, by definition, is something that someone else would rather not do or can not do, to the point in which they would offer you money in return for doing it.

The more desirable forms of production even then requires education, which is scarce and can not be given to everyone.

If we want more people have more desirable forms of labor, then the education system has to be freed from government interference and oppression so that education becomes cheaper. With enough automation, we could remove most people from doing that worst kinds of job (At least in some futuristic society, I could see it happening). However considering our education system puts out meaningless degrees that make people feel entitled to a creative job, we will most likely devolve into some sort of leftist pile of mediocrity instead.

Edited by Hairnet
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  • 2 months later...

After reading this paper, I looked at some comments and saw that people were criticizing Sowell for not understanding the term meaningful work. While I agree that to some extent, you can find meaning out of any work, it's probably not the type of meaning you're looking for. That's the difference between the statements, "I do NOT want to wash cars my entire life," and "Today is actually worth living."

Overall, another great point by Sowell. To get where you want to be, you have to start as high up as you can, then continue working your way up:

People who lack the skills to take on more prestigious jobs can either remain idle and live as parasites on others or take the jobs for which they are currently qualified, and then move up the ladder as they acquire more experience. People who are flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s on New Year’s Day are seldom flipping hamburgers there when Christmastime comes.Those relatively few statistics that follow actual flesh-and-blood individuals over time shows them moving massively from one income bracket to another over time, starting at the bottom and moving up as they acquire skills and experience.

Edited by mdegges
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Work, by definition, is something that someone else would rather not do or can not do, to the point in which they would offer you money in return for doing it.

Not true at all, there is a lot of work done that does not fit this definition. From Google,

noun /wərk/ 

works, plural

  • Activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.

The primary mistake made, I think is to derive your self worth from the nature of the work you do. From the janitor to the CEO office and all the jobs in between, your work will be a revelation of your opinion of your self worth. Work is the activity we do in order to be self sufficient and independent and it is in the achievement of these that we gain a positive self regard.

All of those who talk about meaningful work, and the self esteem programs in schools, have gotten the effect and its affect backwards.

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