Does your job make the world a better place? Stud Terkel’s 1997 book Working claims that work is a search for “daily meaning as well as daily bread”.
While this may be true for some, when it comes to our working lives, each of us has our own set of priorities - and our own opinions - about working.
Regardless of the nature of your job, you probably make some tradeoffs between salary and personal well-being. Maybe you find the value of your work questionable, but the quantity of your pay allows you to overlook it; on the flip side, you might have a less lucrative job that benefits others and, in the long run, makes you feel more valuable.
You can most likely list, off the top of your head, a few jobs that yield the most daily bread. But is it as simple to guess which jobs people regard as the most meaningful? Is it possible to bring home both a top-bracket paycheck in addition the kind of satisfaction that comes from knowing your work is helping others?
Recent research has determined that answering this question is a matter of balancing the nature of the work with other factors, like income and job satisfaction.
A new study conducted by online salary and benefits-tracking company PayScale asked participants a range of questions intended to measure total job satisfaction, among them, “Does your job make the world a better place?”
PayScale's study found that, indeed, many workers in lower-paying jobs find their work meaningful. However, it also appears, from the results chart, that the significance of certain jobs – for example, well-paid healthcare workers – is universal.
As observed by Rebecca Rosen for The Atlantic, of the 374,000 people who visited the PayScale site, those working as surgeons achieved the very best balance in terms of fulfilment and salary. This group was closely followed by anaesthesiologists.
Of course, no job comes without a drawback or two. Although the PayScale report found 94% of surgeons in agreement that the work earning them their median £175,000 salary is meaningful, the same group also reported high stress levels.
Other groups reporting a great sense of value in their work, according to the PayScale study, include those who fall under the umbrella of “community and social service workers. Jobs in this category include but are not limited to firefighters, therapists, clergy members, and directors of religious programs.
While the financial rewards involved may not be as substantial for these individuals as they are for doctors, lawyers, or business executives, community workers clearly feel amply rewarded in other ways.
Clergy members, for example, generated a 97% response in the affirmative when asked whether they felt their work made the world a better place, as did 93% of firefighters.
Interestingly enough, the report does not group all teaching staff together – instead, it separates them according to their field of expertise. Because of this, we see that while 87% of Art, Drama, and Music postsecondary teachers report feeling high job value, the percentage drops into the seventies for pre-school and adult literacy teachers.
The report found fashion designers, gaming supervisors and fast-food cooks to be the least meaningful jobs by a fairly wide margin (each of these groups attained 22 per cent reports of high meaning). Of these, fast-food cooks were also the worst paid, with an average salary of £10,000 to the £30,000 earned annually by the average fashion designer.
The report acknowledges a pattern in the collected data which identifies “high-meaning” and “low-earning” positions as those most likely to be filled by women. This type of work can be found represented visually in the lower right-hand corner of PayScale’s handy graph.
In contrast, the lower-left hand corner of the graph displays jobs which rate poorly in terms of both cash and satisfaction.
Here we find the cashiers, the waiters and the valets; in general, jobs within the service industry neither pay well nor have the “significant, lasting effect on other people” deemed important by New York writer and Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant, according to Huffington Post.
The report found that there are few people who hold high-paying jobs and perceive them as meaningless, although those employed in legal services were frequently on the fence.
While the collective bracket that encompasses paralegals, clerks and similar workers may not be seen as the most meaningful in terms of its emotional payback, such jobs earn a respectable average of £28,000 per year. Their lawyer colleagues make an average of £53,000 per year, with 40% reporting a crucial sense of “emotional fulfilment and social responsibility.”
Rosen makes a distinction between job meaning and job satisfaction as two separate entities, and observes that not everyone who feels happy in their job is happy because their work is meaningful.
This notion was developed further by UK-based writer Lucy Kellaway for the BBC. Kellaway relays an anecdote about a sewage worker who visited her home to unblock a drain and spoke about his job with passion, joking heartily with her. She compares this man and his like to examples of people with “grand jobs” who have been involved in “horrible, violent ends.”
Although Kellaway uses these men as examples, she goes on to explicitly state that she believes the cases to be “three unrelated personal tragedies that tell us nothing about work at all.” Her position on meaningful employment in the UK revolves around the idea that we create our own meaning when it comes to our careers.
This concept is both positive and reassuring. Whether you work as a lawyer, a sewage worker, or a stay at home parent, “the satisfaction in the job itself” constitutes “the best sort of meaning there is.”