The best jobs: only for the lucky few?

The evidence in support of meaningful work is conclusive and unambiguous. A job that helps us grow, that gives us purpose, that serves a greater cause – that’s the kind of job that increases our motivation and engagement, that strengthens our performance and makes us more loyal, that makes us love life and enriches our wellbeing.

Admittedly, the use of catch-all pronouns like “we” and “us” is somewhat misleading because it isn’t actually all of us. It isn’t even most of us. The empirically proven evidence has really only ever involved university-educated employees or those from the middle class.

The higher research participants were on the prosperity ladder, the more powerfully they could climb towards what they believed to be their calling.
The higher research participants were on the prosperity ladder, the more powerfully they could climb towards what they believed to be their calling. Credit:iStock

A comparison missing from almost all of the credible studies thus far has been how (and indeed if) meaningful work is experienced similarly (or differently) across a more socioeconomically diverse group of people.

You can probably tell from the use of parentheses that such a study has finally been conducted, with the results published in the Journal of Career Assessment. The results reveal stark distinctions.


Sort of. Even though the 350 participants were genuinely diverse, representing a cross-section of ethnicity, gender, education and social class, they all had an “equal desire” for a meaningful job. Everyone wanted it. The reality, however, is that only a minority ended up getting it.

Part of the explanation is that “one’s level of privilege has drastic implications for their level of power and number of resources”. The higher they are on the prosperity ladder, the more powerfully they can climb towards what they believe is their calling, equipped with the resources they need to reach the summit.

The majority of people are stuck with more-modest aspirations, restricted by scarce employment prospects that grant a choice of just two options, both of which demand sacrifice. One option is the sacrifice of their mind or body, with the lone job on offer either paralysing their brain or breaking their back, metaphorically of course. (Though not always metaphorically.)

The other option is unemployment, which is obviously the unacceptable outcome for most people. Their desire for meaningful work never disappears. It’s always there. What disappears is their expectation it will ever emerge when all they can barely hope for is a decent job.

That word – “decent” – is the adjective the researchers use to describe the type of work that gives employees a sufficient wage, access to health care, enough time to rest and recuperate, and protection from harm to their mind and body. To have those basic needs met frees them from the struggles and preoccupations that would otherwise inhibit their ability to craft a fulfilling and purposeful career.

So, what can you do about it if you’re among the so-called indecent? On this the researchers are rather vague. “Focus on barriers and how to overcome them,” is one suggestion. “Focus on identifying what [you’re] passionate about and creating an action plan,” is another but with a dash of detail added such as enrolling in a course or applying for an internship.

Specific steps to identify your passion can include trial and error, asking trusted friends and family, brainstorming, psychometric tests, reflecting on childhood interests and listing your talents.

It’s been seven years since I last wrote about meaningful work for this column, on how grateful we should be to have the luxury of designing a career based on work that gives us purpose, especially considering almost everyone else’s less-fortunate circumstances. This latest research reinforces that conclusion – “not because we should feel guilty and not because our issues don’t matter” – but because there’s little denying the stroke of luck that makes the quest for meaning possible.

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