According to the Daily Mail, labour market data in the UK shows that there are almost two million positions that are currently being offered on the job market. The roughly 100000 shortfall in Heavy Goods Vehicle drivers is perhaps the most threatening for the UK economy and is causing the UK Worker Crisis.
This shortfall, along with significant candidate shortages in a host of other industries, is fuelling concerns about a supply chain crisis. Government officials are said to becoming increasingly concerned about a “winter of discontent”. There is currently the very real threat of food and essential goods shortages produce by a collapsing supply chain.
This is actually good news for the UK job market. But, of course, if the UK is not able to address the current shortages, they will have an immensely damaging effect on the UK economy.
500000 over-50’s have withdrawn from the UK job market
The biggest chunk of the UK Worker Crisis has been caused by the roughly 500 000 over-50’s who have decided to withdraw themselves from the job market. Presumably, these decisions are motivated by this demo-graphic no longer having an economic reason to go to work.
From a South African perspective, this is a striking possibility. The South African unemployment rate is sitting at 34.4 % as of quarter 2, 2021. This means that 34.4 % of job seekers will be unable to find employment in the South African economy. In such a context, it is unimaginable that you could have more jobs than workers to fill them.
Do we have a crisis of meaning at work?
No doubt in South Africa, the harsh realities of our post-covid (and indeed even our pre-covid) economy would ensure that every one of the job vacancies could be quickly filled by South Africans. But what is also clear is that, if there was no economic need, SA would also struggle to fill vacancies.
The UK Worker Crisis poses the question to all of us: “if I didn’t need the money, would I still work?” I think for most of us, the answer to this question will be a hard no.
Personally, I would like to believe that I would continue to work as hard as I currently am working whether or not I needed the money. I am certain that I would not leave my current role even if I no longer needed the money. Ultimately, this is because I have a sense of commitment to the work we do. I believe in the novelty of what we are arguing for and I genuinely believe it transforms.
This mindset about work is not an uncommon mindset to find in entrepreneurs. I don’t think Jeff Bezos still needs the money. He is driven by motives that have long transcended the need for money. And clearly, this means that for him work has meaning and significance beyond earning a living.
But we all know that the vast majority of people are not in the same boat as Jeff Bezos. There are only approximately 2755 billionaires globally as of 2021. And, for roughly 500 000 over 50’s in the UK, there is not enough meaning to be found in the job market beyond earning a living to justify continuing to participate when earning a living is no longer experienced to be an issue.
Meaningful work is the product of your intent.
I suppose the question this poses then is, “what is the difference between Jeff Bezos and someone who only works to earn a living?”
We can rule money out as a particularly significant variable. By this I do not mean to deny that money is the primary motive for most people in the global workforce. Rather, money is not necessarily a significant variable. Some people stop working when they feel they have enough money, some don’t. We have the example of 500000 over 50’s deciding not to work, presumably because money was no longer an issue. But if it is not necessarily about the money, then there has to be something else that can motivate us to work.
And in fact, there are all sorts of other things that can motivate us to work apart from money. The desire to contribute to society is very real for some people. A love of nature. Mastery of one’s craft. The wish to become famous. The will to become great among your fellow man. A sense of duty. The commitment to God.
These are all ends other than money that can motivate people to work. They are all things that can make work significant for a human being. I think, in light of this, a good question to ask ourselves is: “what makes my work significant for me?”
This question concerns the meaning you find in the work that you do. What makes it significant for you? What does it mean to you? And if we say that we are faced with a question of meaning, then we have to examine the issue of intent because meaning is a product of human intention. The intention is concerned with what you are trying to do and why. Your motives. This is where we make meaning. The meaning I assign to my work is defined by my intention when doing it.
All work is noble if you have a benevolent intent
For most of us, in the UK Worker Crisis, it is a stretch to find driving an HGV significant beyond the fact that it is an activity that can earn us a living. We struggle to imagine a reason for doing this that is not financial. But, it is in principle possible to find one. Ultimately, it all depends on the intent of the person doing it.
To examine the issue of intent, we have to first consider the distinction between means and ends. What an intention does, essentially, is prescribe the means for a chosen end. Ordinarily, we think that means and ends are the same things as process and outcome. The process is what you do. The outcome is what you get. Naturally, we most often think in terms of doing the process as the means to achieve an outcome as the end.
Going to work only to earn a living is an example of this way of thinking. The effort put into the work is the means to earn the paycheque, which is the end. The process is the means for the outcome. Even though this is a very common patterning of intent, it is nevertheless sub-optimal. This motive turns work into something unpleasant that has to be suffered through for the sake of earning a living. This makes the work draining.
Everyone has the democratic right to approach their work in this way. But, as far as I am concerned, I won’t be joining them. This is because it can be the other way around. The process can be the end. I can go to work to do a good job. To contribute. It is possible to have a sense of noble purpose behind driving an HGV.
And we should bear in mind that a life without work is miserable. The opportunity to work should be celebrated, not because it earns us a living, but because it provides us with an opportunity to give. The intent to give, which we can choose to adopt when working, builds beautiful character. A beautiful character builds a beautiful world and a good life. Work is my gymnasium to cultivate the best in myself. I can only do this if I turn my work into something noble. I turn my work into something noble by cultivating a benevolent intent.
To stay in touch with our content, sign up for our newsletter
Assad Schuitema is the CEO of Schuitema Group and responsible for oversight of global operations.
He is also a PhD candidate in the field of classical philosophy and is studying the applicability of classical philosophical ideals to the modern work context.
His work continues to rediscover the foundational themes that express themselves in all human endeavour and shape and define human collaboration.