What does it mean to give meaning to your work?

12 October 2022

Heard, rehearsed and rehashed, it’s on everyone’s lips: the meaning of work. We swear by it, yet it’s hard to define what it really means to us. It’s an open door to preconceived ideas that make it a meaningless catchword… and that’s exactly what it is. What does it really mean to find meaning at work? Is this quest really unique to the younger generation?
With the help of Anaïs Georgelin, founder and CEO of Somanyways
we decided to take a closer look.

Let’s do a quick calculation. Working eight hours a day, five days a week, forty-seven weeks a year, until the ever-shrinking retirement age of 62, we spend more time earning our living than living it. This may seem a little pessimistic, but it goes some way to explaining why we’re so eager to give meaning to our professional lives.

These different ways of giving meaning to work

You may have guessed it, but the meaning we give to our work is manifold. It has different shapes and can even evolve. We don’t have the same aspirations when we leave school as we do on the eve of retirement. What are the different ways of giving meaning? Anaïs Georgelin gives us a few keys to understanding this highly subjective relationship with work.

For many people, meaning at work means being socially useful. Some will find meaning in their mission by working for a company that has a positive impact on society or the planet. But acting for society, getting involved, is not the only way to give meaning to one’s professional activity. What makes us get up in the morning? What do we want from our work? Somanyways has theorized this question of meaning and identified five typical worker profiles.

Upward mobility, or work as a means to social advancement

This profile represents the traditional vision of success. People in this mode find meaning because their work enables them to occupy a certain social position. This can take the form of a title, a position in the company, a certain salary level, a prestigious company, etc.

The “balance” mode or work as a way of earning a living

Workers in this mode expect their work to enable them first and foremost to meet their primary needs – food, shelter – and to allow them to have other occupations on the side. “These are people who are likely to turn down a promotion because they don’t want to give too much space to work. They don’t mind earning less, as long as they can enjoy their life outside the office,” explains Anaïs Georgelin.

The “transformation” mode, or work as a means of inventing the future

He defines work as a means of reinventing ways of doing things, improving things, innovating, creating, all in the service of the company. The main motivation for people in this mode is to make the company more efficient through their work.

The “introspection” mode, or work as a source of personal fulfillment

Workers in this category see work as a means of personal fulfillment, enrichment and development. “If they have a passion or interest, they may want to integrate it into their work. They’re looking for a job that lets them express their uniqueness and their desires,” adds Anaïs Georgelin.

The “impact” mode or work as a lever for social utility

Whatever their day-to-day mission, people who fit this profile are driven by their company’s purpose. These workers are ready to accept doing something that interests them less, as long as their company contributes to society.

Is giving meaning back to work a generational issue?

The quest for meaning is often attributed to the younger generations, who seem to attach greater importance to this aspect of their professional activity. Yet giving meaning to one’s work is not really a generational issue. Firstly, because everyone, whatever their age, seeks to give meaning to their work, and this meaning simply takes a different form from one individual to the next. “What we see is that the relationship to work is more closely linked to social class and socio-educational background than to age,” testifies Anaïs Georgelin.

This correlation is reflected in the responses to the Workoscope orientation test, which shows a majority of “introspective” profiles*. “It reminds us of Maslow’s pyramid: if the basics aren’t there, you don’t go looking for the rest. If we take young graduates of the grandes écoles in very urban environments, it’s the “introspection” and “impact” modes that are most represented. But if you take young people without diplomas who live in rural areas, it’s the ‘balance’ and ‘ascent’ modes that will dominate,” analyzes the Somanyways founder. He adds: “We are very fortunate in France to live in a developed country where more and more people are at the top of Maslow’s pyramid. So they can ask themselves the question of meaning.”

Now that we’ve established that meaning isn’t necessarily synonymous with social impact and CSR policy, we need to confront it with the concept of commitment. Indeed, it’s easy to confuse the two, and it’s not uncommon to associate social utility with commitment, and commitment with the question of meaning. So what’s the difference between meaning and commitment? According to Anaïs Georgelin, meaning is one of the components of commitment. “When we look at what creates commitment, we find five words: trust, transparency, congruence (or being authentic), meaning and recognition. That’s the link we make between commitment and meaning,” she explains.

*However, theseresults need to be confirmed (only 19,270 people have already taken the test, including 4,000 very recently).


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