There’s a Crisis of Meaning — And It’s Costly 

“People don’t want to work anymore”. If I hear this one more time, I’m going to… write about it. 

Before I begin, let’s get this out of the way. Let me be abundantly clear: Pay people a living wage. Treat them well. Give them what they need to be successful in their job. Invest in their success. This is the bare minimum. 

Now that we’ve covered that, onward. 

We Choose To Go To The Moon

In 1962, JFK announced something that was, at the time, astonishing. (I think given the technology at the time — it’s still astonishing today). He didn’t say we’d develop radical new technology or develop new rocket systems. He said we’d put a man on the moon in just 8 years time (at the end of the decade). It was concrete. It would be clear if we achieved it or not. Most importantly, it was inspiring. People aren’t inspired by developing new rocket systems — they are inspired by putting a man on the moon. In his speech, Kennedy even tells us why the goal was the moon: “because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills”.

Putting a man on the moon became a unifying mission offering a shared story in which to buy into. Everyone understood their role as critical, and serving that mission. In a now famous interaction, when JFK asked a janitor why he was working so late, he replied, “Mr President,” the janitor responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.“

The NASA employees, all 400,000 of them, had a shared mission, and a shared sense of identity. To accomplish great things, you have to get everyone rowing in the same direction. Kenedy knew to get a massive organization of 400,000 people on the same page, the mission needed to be clear, inspiring, and everyone needed to know they had a critical role to play.

Start With Why

In his book, Start with Why, Simon Sinek tells the story of two stonemasons. 

You walk up to the first stonemason and ask, “Do you like your job?” He looks up at you and replies, “I’ve been building this wall for as long as I can remember. The work is monotonous. I work in the scorching hot sun all day. The stones are heavy and lifting them day after day can be backbreaking. I’m not even sure if this project will be completed in my lifetime. But it’s a job. It pays the bills.” You thank him for his time and walk on.

About thirty feet away, you walk up to a second stonemason. You ask him the same question, “Do you like your job?” He looks up and replies, “I love my job. I’m building a cathedral. Sure, I’ve been working on this wall for as long as I can remember, and yes, the work is sometimes monotonous. I work in the scorching hot sun all day. The stones are heavy and lifting them day after day can be backbreaking. I’m not even sure if this project will be completed in my lifetime. But I’m building a cathedral.”

In the last 50 years, our civic institutions have shuttered. Church attendance, sports leagues, volunteer organizations, neighborhood associations, rotary clubs all find themselves wanting for membership. These are places that have provided meaning to people outside of their work. As storytelling and meaning making machines, these institutions helped us humans place ourselves in the greater narrative, share in community, and understand our place in it. Sure, we might work a job devoid of meaning to put food on the table, but at the rotary club we make a difference. When we see kids jumping off the dock that our club installed at the lake last year, we get the satisfaction that comes with long term commitment to a cause we believe in. 

With civic engagement down, these stories are less and less common. As a result, I believe people are looking to get an increased sense of meaning from their work. 

At the same time people are finding less meaning in their non-work lives, thus looking for more meaning at work, work is becoming more meaningless. Roles are becoming more specialized, job positions and duties more fragmented. Autonomy is reduced and employees don’t feel a sense of ownership over their work. 

The backlash is growing. There’s a subreddit called Anti-Work, and the growth in subscribers to this subreddit has exploded in the last two years. In this forum on Reddit, people discuss their disgust with the way work is currently set up and promote doing the absolute bare minimum for economic survival. We can take the intellectually lazy route and conclude there’s something wrong with an entire generation, or we can dig deeper. 

Again, let me be clear: booming corporate profits, employee to CEO pay ratio, lack of support at work, and unfair pay are in large part the reason for the backlash, but I don’t think this explains all of it. Even people who are paid well are burned out. I think at least part of why people “don’t want to work” is because most work is devoid of meaning. People understand what they are doing — however, they don’t understand why they are doing it. If we are to build businesses and organizations where people enjoy coming to work, understand their role on the team, and care about the success of the business, we need to be communicating the why

Too often, communicating the why is an afterthought. I think this is partially due to generational differences. Millennials (the oldest of which are 41, by the way) and Gen Z are looking for meaning in their work in much greater numbers than the generation before. Another reason for neglecting the why is because it’s easy to get caught in the trap of dealing with the day to day operations and not doing the deep work necessary for long term growth. Lastly, identifying and communicating the why is hard work. 

Marketing and Meaning

Marketing needs to reflect the why to employees, stakeholders, and customers.  In our work at Flannel Media, it’s where we begin our work. Sure, we help with video production — but for any marketing to resonate, the message has to be clear and true. By helping brands better define their why — what their brand stands for — they can communicate it in a way employees, potential hires, and customers can understand and integrate with their sense of self. 

The what and the how are pretty obvious — but the “why” can be more illusory. However, if organizations and leaders within them neglect the “why” in their businesses, turnover will remain high, hiring will be difficult, customers will commoditize your business. Finding the why can be difficult. Communicating it, even more difficult. The cost of doing nothing, however, is too great to consider. At best, businesses that neglect their why will be profitable, attract and retain employees that come into work for a paycheck. At worst, it’ll sink the company. 

The crisis of meaning in the workplace isn’t going anywhere. As membership in social institutions continues to decline, employees will demand meaning from their place of work. If people don’t understand why they are coming to work, day in and day out, 40 hours a week, 1600 hours per year, that’s a major problem. Most people spend more time at work than they do with their families. The bare minimum is a fair wage for their work. However, if we want to build companies that have resilience and staying power, while at the same time giving employees greater satisfaction with their jobs, and lowering turnover, we must address what I term the crisis of meaning. 

I believe it’s a lazy oversimplification to say “people don’t want to work”. People don’t want to work for companies that view them as replaceable cogs. People don’t want to work for a paycheck alone. People don’t want to build a wall, they want to build a cathedral.

We ignore the crisis of meaning at our own peril. 

Taylor Rubart

Taylor Rubart

Lead Strategist @ Flannel Media

Not only does he like to write about himself in the third person, Taylor Rubart has been running Flannel Media for six years. He works with clients to determine marketing objectives, and acheive those through video marketing.