Meaning junkies

If you haven’t yet read Derek Thompson’s excellent essay in The Atlantic about “The Religion of Workism,” I highly recommend it. Thompson’s thesis—that in American society we’ve replaced religion with “workism” as a way to find meaning—strikes at the very heart of many occupational ambitions. (Including, if I’m honest, my own.)

“For today’s workists,” Thompson says, “anything short of finding one’s vocational soul mate means a wasted life.”

Millennials have it especially tough as a generation of “meaning junkies,” as he calls us. We want more than just a paycheck, and we’ve been fed ideas all our lives about pursuing our passion and finding our purpose. “There is something slyly dystopian about an economic system that has convinced the most indebted generation in American history to put purpose over paycheck.”

But is it that simple—that we’ve been fooled into thinking our work should matter, instead of maximizing our leisure time like our elders?

Part of what I think is a fair critique of the purpose movement in business is that it’s often insular, focused on the job satisfaction of the individual versus the social affect of the enterprise, meant to keep worker bees happy. If religion has traditionally been the opiate of the masses, as Marx said, purpose has often morphed into the vocational equivalent for workism.

Finding one’s calling is still a worthwhile pursuit, but it does mean we shouldn’t absolve from responsibility employers themselves. Business should be giving employees a reason to believe in their work, as much as the employees themselves should be self-reflective about their reasons for working there. That means thinking critically about why the company exists in the first place.

At 18 Coffees, we’ve been hesitant to focus too much on purpose for this reason, preferring instead to talk about a company’s mission, and work that matters as mission-driven work. I see mission as purpose + action—identifying a credible reason an organization exists, what kind of difference it wants to make in the world, and having a tangible theory of change for why its business activities are going to matter.

Should we assign less meaning to our work as workers? Probably. But work can also be more meaningful.