Does a job have to be useful?

The rising automation of jobs is prompting much debate about the meaning of work. The emphasis seems to be on the skills needed for this changing work environment. Why? Because business is hardwired to look through one end of the telescope at a narrow view of the means of production. Isn’t there a more fundamental paradigm shift occurring? The fundamental purpose of why we get up in the morning and go to work is up for grabs. What’s the point of work if people think their jobs are useless? Developing skills alone will not lead to nirvana. So what’s needed?

Alain de Botton, philosopher and founder of the School of Life, suggested at a recent conference that our quest for professionalism is disconnecting us from our humanity. He said:

We don’t have the emotional skills to deal with the workplace today. When we go into work we put a mask on and become a caricature of ourselves. But we are, in fact, cutting ourselves off from humanity by trying to appear professional, rational and intelligent.

He went on to say:

Instead of focusing on the hard skills we need right now, employees will increasingly need to develop emotional skills such as empathy, resilience and persuasion. Our challenge today is how we can evolve as individuals and organisations.

If you agree with de Botton, then relating to people at an emotional level will be like a Darwinian job sort with the fittest surviving. The rest will be on a Universal Basic Income. But this doesn’t answer my question about the utilitarian nature of work. It’s possible that those people who are more empathetic, resilient and persuasive may be more imbued with a sense of meaning in their work, but it doesn’t necessarily follow.

I see the lack of purpose within individuals as consequences of the following changes in the work landscape:

  • The breaking down of trust between individuals and institutions, particularly since the financial crash in 2008.
  • The changing relationship between employer and employee, away from cultures of parental support and entitlement to fuzzy boundaries and self-reliance.
  • Global interconnectivity driving communication through technology leading to a paradox of weaker engagement through relationships.
  • Alternative ways of working as exemplified by the Gig Economy and the Sharing Economy.
  • And perhaps more controversially, the clashing of deep-rooted worldviews (Trump, Brexit etc) that challenge what their respective proponents hold fundamentally dear.

All the above have heated VUCA fires. It’s compounded by the stark contrast between the developed and developing worlds in an era of mass people movement. No surprise it sparks profound existential questions and people start wondering if their job is useful or useless.

Whatever the speed and extent of the automation of jobs, we can’t leave meaning out of the solution to the skills gap. Demanding new skills for a new era from a workforce who increasingly can’t see the point of their jobs is a self-defeating exercise. We could start by preparing our children at school, equipping them with emotional intelligence and engaging them on the meaning of work as it is and will be. As Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, said at the same conference as Alain do Botton

We have a 19th century education, equipping children for the 21st century.

Where does the meaning of work sit in today’s school curriculum? I wonder what today’s young people would say in answer to my question.

What’s your view?