If you’re the type of person who finds fulfillment and meaning from your job and can’t shut up about it at the bar, congrats, but it seems you’re among a dwindling minority. At least that’s the sense from a recent massive Pew survey which found a 7% decline in U.S. adults who said they derive meaning and purpose in life from their jobs. That’s down from 24% who said their occupation or career gave their life meaning in Pew’s previous 2017 survey.
In the report, the researchers speculate that the declines in mentions of occupation or career as a source of meaning may be related to the workplace turmoil so many faced during the pandemic. Adults with high incomes and high levels of education are still more likely to cite their jobs as a source of meaning compared to others, but both of those groups saw declines over the past four years. Jobs weren’t the only losers in the meaning department either. Mentions of physical and mental health as sources of meaning declined from 19-11%, while mentions of spouses and romantic partners nosedived from 20-9%.
It’s not all bad news though. The share of adults who cited “society” as a source of meaning nearly doubled from 8%-14%. A small, but certainly kind-hearted cohort citing nature and the outdoors as a source of meaning ticked up from 2-4%. And because it’s America, 9% of adults cited “freedom and independence” as their source of meaning, up from 5%. That increase was, predictably, mostly driven by Republicans, who usually aren’t ones to shy away from opportunities to display their god honest love of freedom.
Interestingly, U.S. adults were also far more likely to mention religion as a source of meaning in their life when compared to 14 other countries with “advanced economies,” the researchers note in an accompanying post. Across countries, people with higher incomes and education were also more likely to list family and careers as factors that gave their lives meaning.
By now, it’s relatively well established that performing a job that instills workers with a sense of meaning or fulfillment is better than the alternative. Various research papers in recent years (and general common sense) have shown workers who aren’t anxiously counting down the minutes until their annoying, unbearable job finally ends tend to have improved mental health outcomes.
At the same time though, work fulfillment isn’t the sole driver of happiness, even for people with the “best” jobs. For some workers, the chaos resulting from the covid-19 pandemic brought this into stark relief. Millions of people lost their jobs through no fault of their own overnight. Many of those were able to just barely survive off of expanded insurance and other government relief efforts and got a glimpse of what life was like without their normal job occupying the majority of their day. In some cases, assistance programs have given workers the freedom to finally turn down jobs they otherwise may have felt unable to refuse. According to one report from analytics firm Visier, one in four U.S. workers quit their jobs this year.
Millions of others rapidly adjusted to remote work which simultaneously introduced more time for activities outside of the office and realigned many workers’ traditional relationships to their workplace. And those trends don’t show signs of letting up. According to a May survey conducted for Bloomberg by Morning Consult, 39% of US adults surveyed said they would consider quitting if their employers were not flexible about remote work. These changing elements could have also contributed to why fewer people cite jobs as their source of meaning.
While it’s easy at first to read the decline in people who say they find meaning in their work as further evidence of the daunting drudgery of modern work, it may actually be more of a mixed bag. On one hand, research shows employers and societies should strive to provide people with meaningful, enriching jobs that fulfil them. At the same time though, working in a system that values this above all other priorities can force workers into a never-ending wheel of toiling, where they can convince themselves of the meaningfulness of their labour to their life, even if it comes at the expense of other activities that could bring them meaning.