Pakistan's Premier Multilingual News Agency

When work becomes meaningless

Cui Jiayi Student from School of Education & Honors College, Shanghai International Studies University, China, majoring in Business English.

John Maynard Keynes predicted in the 1930s that by the end of the 20th century, with technological advancements and increased productivity, most people would only need to work 15 hours a week. The remaining time would be devoted to fulfilling personal aspirations and pursuing leisure and personal interests. However, the current reality contrasts this forecast. In today’s world, with the increasing prevalence of artificial intelligence, people are getting busier. Nowadays, individuals often find themselves working 40 hours a week or even more. This prompts us to question: What does work truly signify for each of us?

Some argue that work serves to earn money for supporting families, while others view it as a means of preventing life from becoming monotonous. Meanwhile, some consider work to be a path to self-realization. Consequently, some find their work deeply meaningful, perceiving a direct correlation between their efforts and rewards. Conversely, others regard their work as lacking in cost-effectiveness or a valid reason for existence.

American anthropologist and sociologist David Graeber, in Bullshit Jobs, articulated that such roles lack meaning to the extent that even those immersed in them daily cannot convince themselves of any purpose behind their work. Moreover, these jobs often offer handsome incomes and excellent work environments but lack inherent value. This sharp perspective garnered immediate traction and resonated with workers worldwide. A UK survey revealed that 37% of people feel their work contributes nothing to the world, and this proportion is steadily increasing.

For example, a netizen expressed bewilderment on the Xiaohongshu app: “I earn a monthly salary of 18,000 yuan, but my daily tasks involve nothing more than scheduling meetings for the boss, ordering meals, and managing deliveries. I feel like I’m wasting away.” Initially just a simple grievance, this statement became a scene that both astonished and impressed onlookers. However, this reaction is not entirely baseless; after all, the figure of 18,000 yuan is indeed attractive to many people, drawing a crowd of aspirants. In people’s intrinsic understanding, a high salary often implies high effort. However, tasks such as arranging meetings or handling deliveries, deemed effortless, shatter this conventional belief. The fragmented belief reflects eyes filled with envy: “Suggest resigning, and let me apply.” “Suggest stepping out of the comfort zone, and let me in.” “Hesitation for even a second is disrespectful towards 18,000 yuan.” In the comments section, netizens are eager, seemingly ready to assume the position in the very next second. 

When we perceive our work as utterly meaningless, akin to what David Graeber described as bullshit jobs, how should we reexamine the meaning of our lives?

Upon realizing that their work doesn’t align with their ideals, those who see it as a path to self-realization abandon their current occupation to pursue a more personally fulfilling endeavor. For instance, Lu Xun discovered that studying medicine couldn’t remedy China’s situation because it wasn’t just the physical ailments afflicting the populace but the lack of awakening in their spirits that was the root cause of China’s backwardness. The number of fatalities due to illness wasn’t the primary concern; what was critical was altering people’s mentalities. Only by awakening the populace could there be hope for the country. Hence, Lu Xun renounced medicine and dedicated himself to literature and the ideological roots to rescue the Chinese people.

For some who haven’t attributed much significance to their work, realizing its lack of meaning should prompt them to reevaluate and assign a new purpose. The renowned sociologist Max Weber once stated, “Humans are animals suspended in a web of self-woven significance.” People assign meaning to their work, and what may seem meaningless from one viewpoint might reveal its significance from another.

In the TV series Master of My Own, actress Tan Songyun portrayed the protagonist Ning Meng,  who initially appeared as an assistant. For three consecutive years, her tasks merely involved assisting the boss in making restaurant reservations and organizing travel itineraries. However, she discerned the boss’s temperament, adeptly addressed every situation, and preemptively arranged tasks. Such work may appear “simple,” yet the time she saved for her boss facilitated him in creating greater value. Eventually, even the boss deemed her an indispensable working partner.

 Television dramas do contain elements of embellishment. Nevertheless, they unveil a crucial point: in the realm of work, the potential for added significance lies in whether seemingly straightforward labor can create a unique difference. After all, even simple tasks like arranging meals may conceal underlying complexities. Just like a soulful query raised by a user on Zhihu: Do you genuinely believe this job is easy just because someone is complaining?

An example from the bestselling book The Pyramid Principle can further clarify this viewpoint:

“You need to schedule a meeting with several managers for today (Tuesday) at 3 p.m.

Manager Zhang called, indicating his inability to attend the meeting at 3 p.m.; Manager Wang expressed willingness to meet a bit later, even tomorrow, but not before 10:30 a.m. tomorrow; Manager Chen’s secretary conveyed that Manager Chen would return from out of town a bit later tomorrow.

The meeting room is already booked for tomorrow, but it’s available for Thursday. How would you report this situation to the boss?”

In reality, this scenario allows for mutual agreement. Real work is often far more intricate, involving various covert techniques. Therefore, as we meticulously weigh options amid diverse and flexible situations, these trivial matters acquire newfound significance.

Additionally, there are individuals who, upon realizing their work lacks meaning, consider it merely a means of livelihood, attributing significance to other facets of life. In life’s journey, the “burden of significance” that work carries varies among individuals.

Some believe that work-related growth constitutes most personal development, enhanced skills, problem-solving abilities, and cognitive advancement stemming from work experiences. Conversely, others argue that growth brought by work is only a tiny portion of life, as emotional experiences, interests, reading, and traveling contribute to broadening perspectives and life experiences. The degree to which we assign our growth to work increasingly becomes a choice each worker faces.

This choice itself lacks a definitive answer. We don’t necessarily need to determine the precise proportion of personal growth that comes from work. However, it’s essential to understand that our hearts allocate these proportions, not others’ opinions. Given that the growth space within work is limited, investing the remaining time in life’s growth might be more fruitful, creating value.  

In conclusion, when individuals discern that their work lacks meaning, the courageous ones decisively leave their current jobs to seek more self-fulfilling endeavors. In contrast, the adaptable ones find new meaning in their work or seek life’s purpose beyond their employment.