Claiming meaning at work

The question of meaning at work seems to be emerging in the social debate as revealed by these two years of health crisis where the relationship to work has been profoundly shaken up (1) . But as with many latent contradictions, the covid crisis served as a revealer or accelerator.

As if before our 21st century we didn’t need meaning at work

This concern is not the prerogative of this generation X, Y or whatever the registration.

So is this a claim of a generation of haves? That of the children of growth, of the Glorious Thirties, who can afford the luxury of asking themselves this question? Or is it a vital question for which one is ready to take the risk of losing one’s security?

Is this the symptom of a society where collectives are disintegrating for the benefit of everyone for themselves, which is becoming a general save-the-box? A society giving the injunction to everyone to self-produce and self-determine, thus condemning everyone to produce their own meaning without giving them the skills and the space to do so?

What is behind this claim that might seem insulting to those around the world who cannot survive from their work, preoccupied as they are struggling in the primary levels of survival and for whom the top of the pyramid is always fleeting and illusory?

Starting from the meaning of the word “work”

The meaning of the word work is eminently political. As Maëlezig Bigi proposes (2), what puts work at the heart of social construction is that it is built through a triple promise of social integration, economic integration and grow individually.

What remains of this promise in these times when technological development is generating social earthquakes and leading us into an unthinkable and unthought-out reconfiguration of social relations and work? Would work no longer be able to fulfill its mission of integration?

Should we conclude from this that the demand for meaning at work is a clumsy way of demanding that work regain its mission? So there would be no resignation of actors but a resignation from work?

Let’s start from the definition of work: MA Dujarier (3) proposes an etymology of “work” different from the commonly accepted “tripalium”: Work would come from “traps” which is the structure which is used to contain animals in order to be able to shoe them, or trans : which refers to the idea of ​​overcoming obstacles. Here we find the idea of ​​a structure that puts energy under constraint in order to transform it into work. Which characterizes organizations. The organization is indeed a system of constraint whose mission is to put under constraint the energy with which the actor comes so that it is transformed into work and becomes a production.

Thus technology would have made work lose, at least in appearance, its integrating mission.

The traditional work structures that framed individuals and organized their social relationships have exploded and social organization is no longer containing and organizing.

The meaning of his activity and his belonging

We can see this claim of meaning as a claim of the wealthy in a country where assistance measures (RSA Unemployment etc.) intended to ensure social peace end up weakening the main engine of the individual to get started: the possibility of perceiving the effect of its action on the environment which determines its raison d’être. We know we exist when we can measure the effects we have on our environment.

All work organization and job security measures end up decoupling the activity from its meaning. If whatever I do I cannot perceive how it has an influence in return on my economic life, my purchasing power, then my activity has no meaning. If I have no idea what puts me in the production chain and who and what my activity is for, I cannot find meaning in it.

We can analyze these demands for meaning as a way of talking about working conditions. Indeed, the work of J Gautier (4) and the European surveys carried out by a European organization “euro fund” show that working conditions are rather worse in France. France is the country with the worst indicators in terms of working conditions, work pace and physical working conditions.

But working conditions are far from exhausting the subject of resignation.

Even very, very difficult working conditions have never prevented the activity from allowing its values ​​to be verified and the actors to be committed and proud of their profession. We see in the Silesian salt mines magnificent cathedrals that the workers had sculpted in salt, which show that beyond the suffering of work in the mines, something of the order of shared meaning and spirituality exist. Somehow a celebration of common sense and belonging.

This is what we will also find in the health sector, particularly in France where, feeling at the service of a divine power, the nuns were able to accept working conditions that were often absolutely deplorable and even dangerous.

It is therefore not the difficulty and the risks that lead to disengagement but rather the feeling of usefulness and belonging.

For the youngest who find it difficult to get involved, the question arises as to whether they perceive their work as useful because there is undoubtedly a link between meaning and social utility.

As MADujarier points out: “Recent surveys show that company players have the impression of doing useless or even harmful things, often saying “when I do that, I’m not working”.

The dissociation between employment and the feeling of usefulness is part of the problem. This situation highlights the obvious: The market value of work is not the social value of work.

Moreover, for certain professions, such as finance, the gap has increased between the economic value of work and its social value. Not that finance is in itself useless but it becomes harmful when it is no longer at the service of the valuation of exchanges and energy flows and when it becomes an activity which self-produces its value independently of exchanges and flows. .

The student movement of Paris Tech (5) raises this question of the difference or even the contradiction that there may be between the social value and the economic value of work. A demand for ethics from a population that affirms that we destroy more collective well-being than we gain personal well-being.

Not only utility

In addition, a job can have a strong social utility like health jobs and at the same time the actors can feel a significant loss of meaning. By the fact that the under-remuneration of caregivers sends a message of devaluation, the question of remuneration and working conditions contributes to this loss of meaning. But this does not explain everything.

Commercial constraints (financialization of health), increased control of work (over bureaucratization of the organization), management by indicators are all practices that dry up commitment and intrinsic motivation. The work is so controlled and processed that it can no longer be done consciously and that disengagement, flight then seems the only way to escape suffering or even destabilization (6) .

For Marie Anne Dujarier, the notion of utility has changed for three reasons:

  • We are at the end of the logic of a system that leaves the future in a very worrying state.
  • A world that produces more and more social inequalities without the possibility of reduction;
  • in a production system that tends to exhaust the actors.

For these ecological, social and existential reasons, the question of progress and usefulness is posed.

The mental strain of work has increased. Too much mercantile conception of labor and control. And on the other hand, not enough medium-long term vision, not of his career but simply of his activity. Which employee can be sure that in 5 years he will still have a job?

The “disrupted” meaning

Then we see the appearance of forms of work that are both unthought of and not chosen and therefore not contractualized.

The irruption of digital tools has made professions disappear and atomized activities: buying a train ticket on your phone, scanning your products at the supermarket, commenting on the value of a company’s service. These are activities that produce use-values ​​and exchange-values ​​and yet are not considered to have labor value.

Thus the quest for meaning is not in itself a novelty arising from a universe where the question of meaning had never arisen. What makes the meaning of work become a concern is that this meaning is questioned by the breaking of the promise, the breaking of the implicit social contract which gave meaning to work.

This period of unbridled technological development is characterized by a series of tectonic movements in the field of work which generate a loss of bearings making this promise impossible to keep.

Illustration: DepositPhotos – VisualGeneration



(2)Maëlezig Bigi sociologist lecturer at Cnam – Center for the study of employment and work

(3)Marie-Anne Dujarier – Sociologist Prof. University of Paris Cité – Author of Trouble in the Workplace – PUF

(4)Jérôme Gautier – Economist – Prof Paris 1 Panthéon

(5) Our professions are destructive”: the shock speech of AgroParisTech students on their training

(6) We remember the work of Henri Laborit: the praise of flight (folio essay) 1976

See more articles by this author

Claiming meaning at work