A few days back, I got into a contentious conversation with an acquaintance over the concept of “meaningful work.” I suggested, quite innocently, that meaningful work is a luxury for many of us. That was the start of an argument as the other party became defensive, changed the topic, and we then said our goodbyes.
The disconnect between us may have been brief, but the subject stuck with me — especially since so many articles on the web address the importance of meaningful work to our well-being, and the growing number of people who seek it.
Moreover, the desire for meaningful work is not age-specific, though skills, geography, market factors, family responsibilities, and financial needs are always drivers in the work we chase — paid and unpaid.
I think about my own experience — years of being productive, but not creative; years adding to a corporate bottom line, without feeling that my work “mattered;” the delight I took when I began to make in-roads in using my knowledge and skills on projects that served communities I care deeply about — education and the arts.
But those projects were so low paying they did not afford me an adequate living, thus they were supplemental rather than primary. I had a family to feed, bills to pay; “meaning” took a back seat.
Happiness? Make Room for Meaning
Over the past eight years, I have found meaning in writing online on topics I believe are important to discuss. Meaning offers personal satisfaction, a sense of value; these are not the same as happiness.
This article on the importance of meaningful work recognizes an important distinction on meaning versus happiness:
… research suggests that happiness — as the be-all and end-all — isn’t the only ingredient to a life well-lived… some researchers are cautioning against the pursuit of mere happiness and advocating for the pursuit of its closest cousin: meaning.
In the context of work, citing a survey of more than 12,000 employees across industries, the article points out:
… employees who derive meaning from their work are more than three times as likely to stay with their organizations… meaning trumps items related to learning and growth, connection to a company’s mission, and even work-life balance.
“Meaning” Matters to a Growing 55+ Segment
Think about the work you’ve pursued in your life — paid or unpaid — from office to factory to community center to parenting. Meaning matters, doesn’t it? And isn’t meaning derived from giving, from knowing the value and positive impact of your contributions on something “greater” than yourself?
So what about the importance of meaningful work as we grow older, even if voluntary or low paying, if we can set aside the issues of money? Isn’t this a key ingredient in the recipe of successful aging? As life expectancy lengthens and the 55+ age demographic continues to expand, don’t we seek something “more?” And does meaning, however you find it, stand up to the sensation of invisibility as we age?
The issue of no pay-low pay is a significant “if” for many of us, and was precisely the point of contention in my conversational dust-up. Nevertheless, the pursuit of meaning appears to be a real concern in light of this: our health.
So says this article in The Atlantic on the role of meaningful contributions as we age.
… many of the ills associated with aging were worsened—or even created—by the lack of meaning and purpose in people’s lives… caused by not having a reason to get up in the morning… finding no role for themselves… treated as socially useless and even invisible.
A Purposeful Life
Purpose is a close cousin to meaning in my world, and purpose is a motivator. Raising my kids well was my purpose for more than 20 years. No matter the obstacle I ran into — legal, financial, professional, medical — I barreled through, burrowed under, maneuvered around, or clambered over. I had to, for my kids, like most parents. And the gigs I enjoyed most?
Those that involved children or the arts, or individuals and organizations whose goals felt worthwhile… to me. These were projects and positions and periods of time that facilitated some value-based connection. In other words, I believed in what they were doing, I felt good about helping with my skills, and I took enormous satisfaction in the process. I took “meaning” from exercising my responsibilities, though that is different from achieving my purpose, which was to raise my kids and pay the bills.
But that parenting “job” is done. And I can’t help but feel a lack of purpose and meaning is the future I’m staring into, though I try to beat it back. In fact, in separate conversations I’ve had in recent months, I let slip that I feel increasingly useless — my skills no longer seem to find a place in the larger world.
Of course I’m far from alone in this, and likewise, not alone in the need to get creative in combatting the situation.
Empty Nest… Empty Future?
Consider these words from the same Atlantic article referenced above.
… according to some researchers, ageism is more pervasive in our society than negative stereotypes based on gender, race, or sexual orientation. Our negative attitudes towards aging blind us to the fact that millions of people in their ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and beyond are robust, active, functional, experienced, capable and talented—and that they want to remain engaged and contributing.
Now, you’re likely to come across a breadth of articles that cite Boomers and seniors as “leaving” the for-profit workplace as they approach retirement and seeking “meaningful” roles instead. This is precisely where I ran into trouble in my casual conversation with an acquaintance. Specifically, she described moving into a volunteering role as soon as she will turn 60 and will begin collecting her pension. I just couldn’t stifle my sigh. And my recognition that I would love to be in that position!
But I failed to communicate that I thought it was a wonderful plan. My remark was meant to point out that it presupposes a host of other factors that elude so many of us like financial means, good health and affordable healthcare services, a support system as she ages, and no worries about a roof overhead.
Yes, Some Good News!
So how do we fight back? What can we do if we are middle-aged and don’t want to face a frightening future without purpose? Worse, without the ability to sustain ourselves financially? What can we do to assist those who are older and struggling with this phenomenon?
The Atlantic article is, in its own way, an encouraging one. It cites numerous studies, arguments, and programs pertaining to older Americans contributing to society through meaningful work — including in the employment marketplace.
I strongly recommend reading the full article. It contains a number of pertinent links to sources and organizations.
And luxury or not, I believe the pursuit of meaningful work is a goal to aspire to, broadly helpful to us as individuals and certainly to society as a whole.
I welcome your thoughts.
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