I live in Canada’s biggest oil producing province, Alberta, where the economic outlook is gloomy as the oil prices are not expected to recover anytime soon. Oil companies and those providing services to them, have gone through waves of layoffs, and thousands of experienced, competent employees are now unemployed. Add to those numbers the more recently hired, less experienced, and newly graduated, and you have a glut of job seekers and companies hesitant to hire additional workers in the face of economic uncertainty. Work is important for the obvious reason of enabling us to support ourselves financially; it puts a roof over our heads and food on the table. Many people work out of financial necessity, and do whatever work is available to make a living. But physical survival, or even financial prosperity, is only part of the role of work.
Work fulfills another important human need: the need for a central purpose. A central purpose is a central value without which we would be lost. We would not be able to prioritize the rest of our values, to know how to put them in a hierarchy—which is necessary for deciding how much time, effort, and resources to spend in pursuing them. To determine the relative importance of one’s values—friends, hobbies, family, travel, education, say—a person needs central value, purpose, to which all the other values can be related. Without such a purpose, one is bound to flit from one thing to another from a moment to moment, without being able to pursue any value persistently and to achieve it. One’s values are in conflict, leading to a feeling of guilt when pursuing one, such as time with family, as opposed to education, for example.
Only one value can serve as the central purpose in a person’s life: productive work.
Most of us spend the majority of our time at work. The productive effort required to sustain our lives is significant and must be outgoing: it creates the material values we need to survive and enjoy life. There is no avoidance of productive work if we want to survive and flourish (even if we win the lottery or inherit wealth; witness hapless lottery winners and unproductive heirs who quickly lose their wealth). Therefore, it is only productive work that can provide a person a central purpose and to which the rest of their values are subordinated. Other values, such as a romantic partner, family, exercise, recreational pursuits, are also important, but they cannot substitute productive work as the central purpose—without which other values could not be pursued and achieved.
Work is the major source of happiness—or unhappiness—in our lives. If we are unemployed, there is no central purpose, and we are unhappy. Studies show the loss of a job and unemployment as major sources of stress. If we do work that is not interesting, we also unlikely be happy. One survey showed that the majority of Americans—about 52%–are unhappy at work, with 59% reporting that “interesting work” made them happiest at work.
So what does this mean for employees and employers? For employees, it means taking Steve Jobs’ convocation advice, “Don’t settle,” seriously. Finding work that you find interesting, that you are eager to get to every morning, that allows you to learn and to use your talents to the best of your ability (whatever that is) may take time. Sometimes it’s a matter of acquiring knowledge and skills, through education and experience, to qualify for the kind of work that you enjoy. Sometimes it is a matter of relocating to an area where there demand for what you have to offer. Sometimes it means working for a living in a less than an ideal job, while preparing yourself for something that can give you purpose.
For employers, the central purpose of work means finding and hiring people who believe in the importance of their company’s business and are willing to commit to advancing it. This requires that a company’s managers communicate the importance of its business and the role of employees in it. The managers must also utilize the employees’ talents where they are best suited, by training and compensating them appropriately. This may sound self-evident, but the daily reality in many businesses shows otherwise.
The biggest obstacle to full employment and happiness at work—that both employers and employees can fight—is statism. By constraining and regulating markets, governments everywhere (including the OPEC cartel) are causing unemployment. Only when prices for everything are set freely by markets, can full employment—and unrestricted opportunities for meaningful, happy work—be achieved.