Why do we work? The question of the meaning of work has been analysed and questioned since time immemorial. Today, reflection on work, and especially “meaningful work”, continues to generate enormous interest.
Work has experienced two, often conflicting, visions. On the one hand, work has been interpreted as an obligation, as a burden, as a necessity to cover basic needs, to survive: work as a means. Surely it remains the unique reality for many contemporary workers.
There is, on the other hand, a second vision of work, which understands it as an opportunity for personal development, as a vocation, as the place where we can contribute to improving our environment: work as an end. This second vision, which we could define as “meaningful” work, has many positive implications for the worker himself, his organisation, as well as for his immediate environment (Duffy & Sedlacek, 2007).
Vocation and work: from the Middle Ages to modern times
We find the origins of this second vision of work in Western culture and its religious traditions, especially in the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther offers a twist to the meaning of work, and presents it as the possibility of finding in any position of the production chain (in any work and its faithful execution), a meaning, and with it, the opportunity to contribute to the general welfare. These concepts of meaningful work, of vocation, have been secularised and incorporated into the corporate world. Today, we speak in our organisations of “meaning”, “vocation”, “mission”.
However, there are clear differences between the classic definition of work as a vocation in the Middle Ages, and the definition of work as a contemporary vocation. In the Middle Ages, vocational work was explained by a kind of destiny, it was the vocation that chose the person, and this vocation, this meaningful work, implied important sacrifices. The definition of work as a contemporary vocation is different. The person is the one who chooses a vocation —in a certain way it’s a self-fulfilment—, and he or she is doing it thinking about his or her passions, his or her abilities, in a certain way seeking his or her own happiness and that of his or her environment. Therefore, we have moved from the vocation that chooses the person to the person who chooses the vocation, from the strength of destiny to self-destiny, and from sacrifices to well-being and happiness.
Can a zoo portrait the concept of vocation and work?
Two researchers, Bunderson and Thompson, wanted to delve deeper into the contemporary notion of work as a vocation, and to do so they chose a highly interesting collective: zookeepers (Bunderson & Thompson, 2009). This group is interesting because on the one hand they are highly skilled with very high levels of education (82% have a university degree) but at the same time, they receive very low salaries, have very few opportunities for promotion, and their jobs can be considered physical, even “dirty”.
Their duties include cleaning feces, scrubbing enclosures, cleaning cages and feeding animals. However, this highly qualified, low-paying group with few opportunities for promotion are able to spend months and years volunteering to get “their” position. For researchers, understanding this group is a beautiful opportunity to understand the concept of contemporary vocational work.
More than 900 animal caretakers from 157 zoos and aquariums in the United States and Canada participated in the study. The first question the researchers wanted to understand is why they chose this profession. And among the reasons, two major narratives emerged. On the one hand, the carers explained that they have always had a “natural” predisposition towards this work, they have always liked working with animals, and they have also felt that they have the skills, talents and abilities to carry out their responsibilities to the full. A second narrative is that the work had in some way been discovered to them, revealed, unveiled. In short, the work was pushing them, resembling more the classical tradition of vocation and work than the modern notion.
For Bunderson and Thompson the study did not end here. They also wanted to understand the perceived implications of enjoying vocational work. They noted that the vocational work of carers not only had positive implications, but also negative ones. It was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, their results showed that certainly their vocational work gave them a high sense of relevance (occupational identification) which at the same time explained their perception of having a place in the world. They explained that what they liked was not cleaning the cages, but knowing that by cleaning cages they were making a contribution to society. And it’s in this “knowledge that by cleaning they contribute” that the crux of the matter lies. They are aware that with their daily tasks (cleaning, sanitation, feeding, caring) they preserve the fauna, make the public aware, in short, they improve the world.
Sacrifice and vocation: hand in hand?
However, there is another side to the coin. Carers perceive that their moral responsibility imposes significant professional and personal sacrifices on them. Three of these stand out: 1) monetary sacrifices, due to low wages, 2) work sacrifices related to doing physical, demanding, and dangerous work, and 3) family sacrifices that involve total availability, which goes beyond the established hours (for example, having to go because of illness or the birth of an animal). In a certain way, they never minimize their duty, their moral responsibility is always imposed, involving important sacrifices.
For Bunderson and Thompson the great contribution of the study is that, although there is a new conception of vocational work —as that work which is chosen for the person, based on their passions, their abilities, and related to happiness and well-being—, its evidence suggests that carers seem to be closer to the classical notion of vocational work than to the contemporary notion. The authors define it as a neoclassical rather than a contemporary view, where work is revealed in a certain way, where moral responsibility is imposed, and where the narrative of sacrifice still carries weight.
We can think of it as just another job, involving a very specific group. However, it is interesting to apply Bunderston and Thompson’s work to so many other occupations: teachers, social workers, health professionals. What percentage of our population enjoys meaningful work? For how many of our employees is work just a means? For how many is it an end? What are the positive and negative implications of vocational work for the individual? And for the organisation itself, are there negative implications of vocational work? There is an urgent need to understand meaningful work in much greater detail and all its implications. Bunderston and Thompson have answered some questions, but above all they have opened up many more.
Bunderson, J. S., & Thompson, J. A. (2009). The Call of the Wild: Zookeepers, Callings, and the Double-edged Sword of Deeply Meaningful Work. Administrative Science Quarterly, 54(1), 32–57.
Duffy, R. D., & Sedlacek, W. E. (2007). The presence of and search for a calling: Connections to career development. Journal of Vocational Behavio, 70, 590–601. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jvb.2007.03.007