Skip links

What does meaningful work *really* look like?

By Richard Flockemann, Research and Reporting, BrightGuide Africa

Why walking away from your “vocation” can be good for the soul

One of the most striking elements of modern capitalism is how popular some relatively poorly paid jobs are.

Jobs in academia, journalism, the civil service or the performing arts don’t always offer lucrative salaries; nevertheless, the competition for places is starting to look as cut-throat as applying for a position at Goldman Sachs. For instance:

  • Unpaid(!) postdoctoral positions at Oxford or Cambridge routinely attract hundreds of applications each.
  • About 20,000 people apply to the UK’s Civil Service Fast Stream every year, and only around 900 are successful. That’s a 4.5% success rate.  
  •  Some stats say only 17% of Journalism graduates end up finding a career in journalism.
  •  Work in the performing arts is often similarly hypercompetitive and even more precarious.

So why are these jobs so hypercompetitive? They don’t offer as much as others in terms of compensation or job security, but they do offer something else we care about – a sense of meaning and purpose. For many people, working in these professions is not just a job; it’s a vocation. This is the work that they feel called to do in some sense, as it aligns closely with their interests and values.

Is vocational work all it’s cracked up to be?

But, in my experience, there is a growing number of people who are finding that pursuing a vocation (in this sense) is far less satisfying and fulfilling than expected. There are multiple reasons for this, some specific to each sector. But I think an important and underrecognized factor is the simple fact that these jobs are as competitive as they currently are.

When you have an over-abundance of highly competent, talented people competing for the same work, it changes an employer’s incentives.

It removes incentives to offer competitive salaries or to put much effort into retaining employees. It creates incentives to treat employees as disposable and replaceable – because, in some sense, that’s exactly what they are. This also creates incentives for uncollegial behaviour; when resources are very limited, your colleagues are also your competitors, and it’s not in your interest to support their careers.

Toxic workplaces and Trade-Offs

Incentives matter. Behavioural Economics tells us incentives affect how we act, even when we aren’t consciously aware of it.

This would suggest that if you work in a hypercompetitive job, there is an increased risk of ending up in a toxic workplace that is more prone to aggression, callousness and unreasonable expectations and compensation.

Toxic workplaces are also correlated with high levels of stress, anxiety and depression. Research suggests that spending a long time in those environments can create a profound sense of worthlessness and meaninglessness. This is always bad, no matter what you are doing. But it’s surely particularly bad for vocational jobs. If the primary reason you are doing a job in the first place is that you wanted to do something meaningful, then a workplace that creates a sense of meaninglessness is an even greater problem than it normally is.

That raises the question: is the payoff from working in a vocational occupation, worth the risk of a toxic workplace?

As with so many trade-offs, the answer varies from person to person. Some people enjoy the rough and tumble of hypercompetitive working spaces, or at least feel they are worth putting up with in order to do the work that matters to them.

But others – and I include myself in this group – might ultimately conclude that workplaces with crazy incentives are too heavy a price to pay.

Moving past vocation to find meaning

If you are someone who has always wanted a vocational job, and who is put off by risk of toxic workplaces, I have good news. Leaving your vocation behind can be surprisingly good for the soul.

Just as vocational work can create a sense of meaning, so too can working in a job where the balance of power between employer and employee is less one-sided. In environments where competition is less white hot, there are more incentives for employers to treat employees like full humans, and fewer excuses for people to be aggressive, or uncaring. Generally, it’s an environment where the incentive structure makes it easier to be decent on an interpersonal level.

So, what does this tell us? What does meaningful work really look like?

Well, if you’re one of those people who cares strongly about meaningful work, you shouldn’t only consider what work most closely aligns with your interests and values. You should also consider how competitive the race for that job is, and what effect that is likely to have on your working environment. You should think creatively about what you can offer, and be open to exploring other kinds of jobs, and other kinds of contributions you can make to the things you care about. Meaningful work is less rare than it might seem at first.

As for myself, I found moving from academia to the private sector a surprisingly rewarding experience. It is a relief to be working outside of a university’s somewhat cumbersome and indifferent bureaucracy, it is exciting to be close to the heart of a growing company, and I have plenty of opportunity to put my skills as a researcher, writer, analyst and even an educator to good use.