The Privilege of Meaningful Work

I’ve been listening to the Unprofessional podcast. The show’s premise is simple: a pair of hosts bring on a rotation of guests and talk about all things not work. But as hard as they try, their conversations often do end up revolving around professions and the stories from their workplaces, perhaps a tacit admission that work is an integral part of everyday life and continues to shape our identities. New grads and millennials have rallied around “meaningful work”.

In the past, I’ve argued the idea that privilege distorts assumptions and expectations. It’s a first-world problem: the vast majority of people on this planet cannot choose to have satisfying careers which can also sustain their livelihood, work that does not pleasantly make its way into podcasts and casual conversation.

Certainly, finding and keeping work with an intrinsic sense of purpose is ideal, and all options being equal every job seeker would gravitate towards occupations that provide a sense of doing good or can realize major impact. Reality, though, only has a limited number of jobs in these fields, and many of them are not particularly meaningful or interesting, but completely necessary for a functioning capitalist society. The luxury of pursuing an interest and following through to a successful and fulfilling career is rare and an unrealistic prerequisite.

Speaking from immigrant family roots, the types of careers that immigrants – educated or otherwise – end up with in their adopted country are often anything but glamorous. They’re stuck with tedious, boring work, with little advancement opportunity, holding no meaning beyond the reciprocation of a paycheck. Forget choosing to retire at 65; they’re trying to get out of the workplace as soon as they’re financially secure, likely with a small nest egg plus some expectation of government assistance. For these jobs which are merely jobs, there’s no glory or satisfaction in staying longer than the minimally necessary time.

Then again, there are certainly some jobs that don’t seem glamorous at first glance but nonetheless do provide intrinsic satisfaction, happiness, and a sense of accomplishment. Some people have been able to develop that sense of purpose, and they should be celebrated.

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Comments 2
  1. Being a Software Manager at Square certainly does not put you in a position to talk about others as being privileged, at all. You should seriously delete any rants you have along these lines as they show a lack of class and a sever case of social ignorance.
    “…the vast majority of people on this planet cannot choose to have satisfying careers ..”
    Let me stop you right there. What are YOU doing for the shit conditions the majority of people in this world are in? I see that by your last name (Cheung) that you have some immigrant forefathers (or are a first-generation immigrant yourself). Talk about privileged! Someone in your past family traveled thousands of miles just to be able to ensure YOU the spoiled privilege of having a better life.
    If people want to make less money in a job that is more satisfactory to them, then you have no say in the matter. If people want to shoot for a job that will make them more money by going back to school (or what not), then you have no say in the matter. If people want to travel thousands of miles looking for a better chance for their family, then you have zero say in the matter. Not only do you lack the right to tell other people what to do, you also completely lack the merit to show that it is worth listening to you.
    People’s right to pursue (and to great lengths) what makes them happy subsumes any definition of ‘distorted assumptions and expectations’ you might have. If someone wants to quit Google, then let them. All that means is: some other human being will get their job. Bid deal!
    If people in the first world have drastically different expectations than those in the third world, then THAT is what proves something is working. Third world expectations are: “Does this feed my family tomorrow”. First world problems are different because the third world problems are gone (or are going away). That is a FUCKING GOOD THING! And your pessimistic attitude towards it all is exactly what is holding back everything from moving up and to the right. Do you HONESTLY think that by complaining and poking fun at first world peoples expectations that you are going to magically help people living in impoverished conditions elsewhere in the world?? Of course not!
    You are painting a pessimistic ideology that is all about complaining about the fact that other people even have ideologies. I certainly hope you at least begin to recognize the hypocrisy in that.
    Once you get over YOUR privileged self and begin to recognize that this world will not grow/benefit from YOUR opinions but ONLY from your ACTIONS … then start blogging again. Until then, take 7 years to go learn that in the mountains like Batman or something. I apologize for the rant, but attitudes these days are just way to pessimistic about the tiniest things (when pessimism actually cause more damage to the economy than any ‘distorted assumptions’ could).

    1. Well, score one for telling people to shut up, I guess. And for shooting the messenger.
      I don’t think you quite got what I was trying to say. I was trying to promote celebration of work that may not seem all that meaningful (e.g., have a huge impact, be satisfying as a humanitarian mission, etc.), while pointing out that in a lot of cases, people who have the opportunity to pursue those jobs do so because they’re coming from a privileged place and don’t have to make hard tradeoffs for a job that they consider meaningful. It’s like rich kids going to South America for a month so they get to write about it in their college essays.
      Of course me just *blogging* about it isn’t going to make a huge (or even small) difference to the impoverished; the same way that you commenting about it probably won’t either. Neither of us are pretending otherwise, but I guess I agree that if there was someone who was taking that position, I’d agree with you that they’re pretty hypocritical.

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