Is Meaningful, Purposeful Work Reserved for the Privileged Elite?

"All of this talk about finding meaningful and purposeful work is nice and all," one of my students says as we gather around our upper-level seminar table. "But it isn't applicable outside of a small, privileged, affluent population. Most people work because they have to." I love this moment, which happens every single time I teach about meaning and purpose in work. It means at least one person in the class is thinking, engaging, and moving beyond his or her own experiences.

Garbage Man

And I hope you've asked the question yourself, in response to a post or two of mine. Like my last post - When Work and You Align - one might question whether such a convergence of self and work is a luxury accessible only by a privileged elite.

My contention is no (not a shocker, is it?). Not only should everyone be entitled to finding meaning and purpose in their work - and reap such benefits as lengthened lifespan, fewer psychological disorders, and better physical health - but I also contend that anyone can find it. If they look for it. Without having to leave their "it pays the bills" job. Even if said job involves low status, low skill, and hard labor.

Skeptical? Good, that means you're still with me.

First let me say this:  I'm sure many people in drudge jobs don't find meaning and purpose in their work.  Just as many people in high pay, white collar jobs don't.

But we only need to look to Candice Billups for proof that it's possible. A custodian in the oncology ward of a hospital, she was interviewed by the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan to discuss her work. As she talks, it becomes immediately evident that she finds deep meaning and purpose in her low status job.

Even more notable, it's clear that she actively created - and continues to create - this meaning in her work. It's not something that simply happened to her.

Perhaps the real question is this:  why do we treat meaning and purpose as some sort of mystical cloud that will waft into our lives if we're somehow fortunate and privileged enough?As Ms. Billups demonstrates, depth of feeling about our work is available to all of us, regardless of our particular job or SES or educational background. If only we work to find it. [youtube]

What do you think? Do you believe meaningful and purposeful work are reserved for the privileged elites? Or are these feelings accessible to all of us?

Exciting note:  Our new site - - will launch on Monday, June 24th! Watch for notices about signing up for our brand new email newsletter, and an announcement about our first-ever giveaway. It's time to move out of the classroom, folks, and I hope you'll be graduating with us!

Could waste collectors feel meaning and purpose in their work? Well I'd sure hate to be around if they stopped working, so... (Photo credit: dmourati)