We need to fight against the ‘Big Shrug Generation’ school
of thought that work is simply a means to an end
The sister-in-law is 20 and everyone is asking her what she wants to do. But
listening to all the jaded sloggers around her, whatever noble motives and
thrilling intentions they started out with, disappointment seems to be the
universal narrative of working life.
Most are busy incubating suspicions that they are worth more, others are on
a strict diet of self-blame for their lot in life; all are living for the
The dream of a worthwhile job with variety, gym membership and eccentric
colleagues, seems to inevitably dissolve during the daily grind. Her answer is
to cut out the high hopes and avoid the let-down. She intends to do something
she expects will bore her to tears, but is steady, secure and money spinning.
Law it is, then.
Such worldliness in one so young. Despite better judgement, you find
yourself suggesting pompous, headmasterly things such as: "well, what do
you feel passionate about?" ("nothing, really"), and "if
you’re going to spend all those hours at it, you might as well enjoy it"
("yeah, but it doesn’t last").
It’s no good. The ‘Big Shrug Generation’ believes in Engels’ functional
theory of work – using it as a means to an end, a temporary surrender of
liberty for the sake of material reward – but updated with millennial guile.
She can point to multiple examples from people she knows to back up her
argument; it’s just a job, they all say. I can think of one or two who are
truly passionate about their work – and even they have their reservations.
So her plan has three steps: 1. Get dull job. 2. Work to finance fun. 3.
Retire. It’s the kind of strategy you normally formulate after working for 15
years, but maybe she’s precocious.
I have no idea whether anticipating disappointment means you don’t suffer it
later or whether it merely bases a whole career on the expectation of it. But I
can see the attractions of the position. In one efficient stroke, work shrivels
in importance: it becomes purely an animal battle for status and cash, while
all the more human parts of life take place outside of it. Maybe many graduates
feel the same way, but hide their feelings from the folk with clipboards from
And perhaps she’s right that work is over-sold. We expect too much from it,
when we should really be more demanding of leisure time. As the sociologist
Richard Sennett has written, "the spectre of failing to make something of
oneself in the world, to ‘get a life’ through one’s work… impels people to look
for some other scene of attachment and depth." The ‘other scene’ lacks
spokespeople in our dutifully work-driven culture.
Nevertheless, I still reckon the ‘just a job’ school of thought is wrong. It
is especially wrong among professionals and other workers with options.
For a start, people underestimate just how much work shapes their
personality. Journalists, for example, with a generally detached, sceptical
turn of mind, will soon take on the outlook of the publications they work for.
I have a friend who once held The Sun to be the root of all evil, but came to
see it as the only trustworthy weather vane of the public mood after starting
It is also true of employment lawyers. If they represent employers, they
will soon come to empathise with the managerial mindset and think plenty of
workers are pushing their luck. There is no shame in this: it is the way we
unconsciously seek to match our self-respect to our occupation. The point is
that jobs tend to leave a mark on people – just as people hope to leave their
mark on organisations.
The phrase, ‘it’s just a job’ is often used as a kind of defensive tic – a
means of not seeming such a goody-goody. It does not exclude material ambition
– you’re in it for the money, after all – yet it does exclude other ambitions,
such as excitement, or fulfilment, or – less ambitiously – the avoidance of
self-betrayal. This is another good argument against ‘just-a-jobbers': poverty
of aspiration. It may be old-fashioned, but the theory that work can be life-enhancing,
at least for the lucky or clever, is surely still worth preserving, even if the
experience falls short.
If we were to draw up a model of ‘meaningful work’, we would factor in
‘authority motives’ such as money and status, ‘craft motives’ such as satisfaction
and success, and ‘moral motives’, dealing with job content, belief and calling.
Whether we find work meaningful relies on the interplay of these sets of
motives – between private aspirations and professional opportunities. The ‘just
a job’ school only has authority motives to play with. That may be enough, but
it seems unrealistically cynical.
And finally, there is a roadworthy argument in the correlation between
happiness at work, and happiness in life. Admittedly, work is not the key
determinant – family life, health and levels of debt are all more important.
Yet, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a
positive psychological contract remains "strongly significant" in how
great the chances are of being pleased with your existence.
It is not just a job. Work is a highly potent force, whose influence spins
off in all kinds of peculiar psychological directions. The trouble is that
after a few years of selling your life to clients in six-minute chunks of
billable time, you will have no inclination to think about it.