What Is The Purpose Of Work Anyhow?


Most people who are unemployed are actively looking for work, while others may have stopped looking and returned to school or training to bolster their chances, and still others may have for various reasons stopped looking altogether and have settled in for a life relying on some form of charity / assistance. And for physical or mental health reasons, some who are unemployed may never work for pay or for stretches of time until they recover enough to again seek work.

What’s the purpose of work anyhow? And given that there’s only twenty-four hours in a day, why choose to spend seven to twelve of them apart from the ones we love most, many of us working in jobs we find unrewarding and difficult, sometimes even bad for our health? Curious.

Well for starters work accomplishes things that we feel need to get done in order to improve our lives. Without work, we wouldn’t have those nicely paved roads to drive on, the cars themselves wouldn’t be made, and the fuels used to power them wouldn’t be available. Without work we’d have no one to go to when we were ill, no teacher to learn from, no policeman to keep us safe as we sleep and the list goes on and on.

When we give our skills, expertise and knowledge in exchange for pay, we contribute to the betterment of the society in which we live. Hence the purpose of work is that work gives us purpose. We may feel genuinely better when we are working not only for the income that work provides, but because the work we do gives us purpose, allows us to feel useful and contributing once again. Often in talking with the unemployed, conversations don’t really revolve around money as much as they do around the loss of self-esteem and the loss of purpose. “I don’t know what to do” is heard more than, “I don’t know how to make money”.

One issue with someone experiencing short-term unemployment is that after being rejected by an employer, the message is interpreted as, “we value the skills and experience that someone else has more than we value what you would contribute”. While disheartening, there are other employers to appeal to. However, the message received by long-term unemployed job seekers from an accumulation of many rejections is, “your skills are now obsolete, your knowledge no longer relevant, your value has therefore diminished, and ultimately, we don’t value YOU”. Ouch.

And when out of work, instead of having a purpose in our daily lives that others highly value, it may seem that our biggest purpose for the day is reduced to getting dressed, watching a television show or cleaning the house. These events are not ones to proudly share with our family and friends, and so our lack of purpose rolls over into a lack of self-esteem. With low self-esteem, it becomes more commonplace to avoid public interaction where our lack of purpose tends to become magnified. Instead of being asked how we are and what is of interest to us, we get asked, “so what do you do for a living?”, a version of, “so what’s your purpose?”

Take an entry-level job posting at a fast-food establishment or retail store. How an unemployed person views that opportunity depends on many factors, including their previous jobs, but one key factor is how long the person has been unemployed. Many people take those jobs not because of the money, (which is generally minimum wage) but because the job itself provides them with a purpose; a reason to get up, dressed, out the door, and they feel wanted and ‘fit in again’ when working. They appear to the rest of us as a, “regular working person”; the key word there being, ‘regular’.

So why do some reject the entry-level job in retail or fast-foods as examples? Primarily I think because of their own perceptions of the job. While unemployed and in the privacy of their own apartments or homes, they can retreat from public scrutiny and deal with their loss of status and purpose alone. They worry that taking such a job only puts them on public display, and heaven forbid someone they know should see them or worse yet be served by them. Now they worry even more that news will spread and the message will be, “Poor so-and-so, I saw him or her down at the store and do you know he’s/she’s reduced to selling coffee and has to wear that ugly uniform?” What they are really discussing is the seemingly lowly purpose you may have sunk to.

However, work can be very uplifting and a boost to our self-esteem if we are in either a prestigious job, or the work is highly valued by the person doing it. A man I know takes great pride and pleasure in being a Dishwasher and so highly values the job that he is in fact in his dream job. Not high on my personal list of jobs I’d want, but it’s integral not to judge the job, nor by association the person performing it. Society needs all kinds of work performed, and the people who do the work should be valued not only for what they do, but for who they are first, and how they do the work second.

Just imagine the change you personally could bring about if today you said the to person serving you coffee, changing your oil, answering your phone call, etc., “Thank you! I appreciate you and the job you do!” Maybe you’d spark something wonderful.

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4 thoughts on “What Is The Purpose Of Work Anyhow?

  1. Those lowly minimum wage jobs are extremely hard to come by. Those employers are as picky as any employer and they also have their pick of people to choose from. Also, not everybody can do those jobs. Fast food means you move fast. If you have severe co-ordination problems like I have, and can’t move fast and you are very awkward and clumsy, you won’t be able to do the job effectively.

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  2. I loved this article, Kelly! Especially the bit at the end of how we perceive jobs and the value we perceive others have of them (and our own perceptions of them, too). Thanks for a great piece of advice.

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