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Religion & Secularism
Meaning in the Executive Suite
Ken Hines doesn’t succumb to corporate propaganda about meaning.
On that fall morning years ago when the eighteen-year-old me first entered a college philosophy classroom, I carried with me a notebook, the assigned texts, and the naïve confidence that somewhere in these lectures or these pages I would find (at last) the meaning of life. I was to be somewhat disappointed. Although the philosophical tradition from Plato to Richard Rorty is brimming with potential answers to the timeless question of life’s meaning, I found those answers to be neither as singular nor as clear cut as I had hoped. If, as we learn in The Republic of Plato and his other dialogues, what we perceive in day-to-day life is a knock-off of ideal Forms that exist in a perfect world, and if knowledge of those Forms is the highest accomplishment one can attain, that certainly points us toward a purpose in life. Aristotle seconds Plato’s priority on intellectual inquiry, and adds that true well-being issues from virtuous action. But none of this is crisp and catchy. Their arguments wouldn’t fit on a T-shirt.
As it turns out, the question of meaning evidently does not lend itself to a final answer, which may explain why it has intrigued thinkers from so many disciplines. By now, generations of theologians, psychologists, sociologists, even cultural theorists, have weighed in on the topic. But in our own time, a new authority has emerged: corporate management. From their posh digs in the executive suite, these industrial titans try to define the meaning of life for their employees; and they do so transparently and bluntly – the kind of thing a teenage philosophy student might appreciate.
The Birth of Worldly Meaning
The idea that your employer would wade into the question of your life’s meaning may seem preposterous until you think about the connection between work and meaning. This was first established through the Protestant concept of worldly calling. Neatly summarized by Max Weber in his classic work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), the story begins in the sixteenth century’s Reformation, with Martin Luther and John Calvin redefining the idea of sacred vocation. Up to that point in the Christian West, there had been only one kind of divine calling and it required leaving the profane world to serve a holy office, becoming a priest, monk, or nun. Everyone else made a living in whatever trade was available to them. The Reformers turned that idea on its head. God, they believed, doesn’t just summon His favorites to be nuns and priests; He calls on everyone to serve Him, even by the sweat of their brows, as tailors, potters, and brewers. The notion of ‘worldly calling’ found a particularly receptive audience in the English colonies in North America, where settlers had been motivated to make treacherous ocean voyages in part because of religious fervour and in part because of economic opportunity. The change in outlook was dramatic and pervasive. As historian James Livingston puts it, “Before the Reformation, almost no one believed that socially necessary labor was an ennobling activity. After the Reformation, almost everyone did” (‘Why Work? Breaking the Spell of the Protestant Ethic’, The Baffler, No.35, 2017). But how do you get from a devout Puritan glassmaker in Massachusetts Bay Colony to a lanyard-yoked management consultant in 2020, whose only references to God are the occasional expletive?
The bridge connecting them was cultural change wrought by industrialization. One trade after another was replaced by machines, and by the 1850s many craftsmen had been relegated (or ‘rationalized’) to mind-numbingly repetitive chores on production lines. The psychological toll on the worker through his loss of independence, pride, status, and so on, hurt morale and threatened productivity. That posed a problem for factory owners: How could they keep their masses of former artisans at their stations, repeating their menial tasks on the production line?
The manufacturers responded with a brilliant, if cynical, management initiative. They celebrated the sanctity of work, not just for the benefit of the workers themselves, as the Protestant work ethic had done, but also for their families and communities. In speeches and newspaper articles, they held up the factory as a glorious enterprise that would carry one and all to a new Promised Land of prosperity and security. And thus a great commercial sleight of hand was born. In the absence of the Calvinist footing upon which it was originally built, the idea of worldly calling was reframed to suit business owners’ objectives.
Today, providing some sort of philosophical underpinning for their employees’ work is basic management leadership practice, to the point that any CEO who fails to whip up purpose for his minions in the form of a mission statement, vision, or credo, would be found guilty of malpractice. Employees are surrounded by this kind of effort: in staff meetings, incentive programs, departmental emails, even posters in the breakroom, they’re reminded that they’re there to make a difference in the world.
The Meaning of Corporate Life
Perhaps the richest vein of corporate evangelism is to be found on company websites. Below are a few examples from websites of how companies, in their own dialect of corporatese, seek to persuade applicants that a job with them means a life of meaning:
STARBUCKS: “Inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, one neighborhood at a time.”
SUNTRUST: “Work and live with greater purpose at SunTrust.”
FACEBOOK: “Give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.”
WHOLE FOODS MARKET: “Whole Foods Makes You Whole.”
As noble as the sentiments sound, all these companies are involved in the otherwise somewhat pedestrian activity of marketing products and services. Nothing wrong with that. What’s off key, though, is the claim that existential fulfilment is a byproduct of this effort. Why does management care about your sense of meaning? Follow the money. When employees are convinced that they’re part of a grand enterprise in pursuit of noble goals, they work harder. The purpose of the corporate mantra, the credo, and the aspirational challenge, is to boost productivity and reduce staff turnover.
In the post-industrial economy, the connection between work and purpose has evolved – shapeshifted may be a better word – into a particularly virulent strain, which Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor traces to the secular character of our times. In his book A Secular Age (2007), although he’s not specifically concerned with meaning in the workplace, Taylor does devote attention to his nuanced term ‘fullness’ – the sense you get when life feels full, rich, deep, and complete (pp.5-7). To many of our forebears, that feeling of fullness in life “pointed inescapably to God” (p.26). For most of us today, however, maybe it occurs at a chance gathering of old friends, a hike in the mountains, or at a concert. Whatever prompts it, we tend to think of this fleeting sense of fullness as self-generated. We look inward to choose our activities, the goals we set, and the work we do.
Our sense of meaning in life is simarly self-generated. This leaves us vulnerable to the appeals of corporate management.
Resistance is Profitable
Despite its glossy packaging, management’s appeal to our innate need for meaning often falls flat. Perhaps that’s to be expected if, as cultural theorist Terry Eagleton suggests, “It is not easy for an industrial capitalist order to come up with a vision that will seize the hearts and minds of the people” (Culture and the Death of God, 2014, p.63).
One reason for this is employee skepticism. Employees know better than anyone that the company’s advertising claims often contain only half-truths (at best). Why, then, should they take the lofty language of employee communications seriously? Another reason these corporate attempts fail is that they’re imposed from outside – by someone who wields inordinate power over the worker.
Few have written about the meaning of life more eloquently or with more authority than psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. His innovative approach to psychotherapy was based on his experience as a prisoner in Nazi death camps. There he observed that the prisoners who survived deprivation and torture were the ones who “knew there was a task waiting for them to fulfill” when the war ended (Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946, p.104).
For Frankl, meaning is a primary motivation in any individual’s life. “This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by [the individual] alone; only then does it achieve the significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning” (p.99). Whatever else the corporate goals might be, they cannot be individual or personalized. Rather, they are imposed from above by a manager with leverage over each employee: they are not ‘freely chosen’ as Frankl prescribes. Worse still, by its very nature, the corporate sense of meaning is designed to benefit the corporation itself. Nothing about it speaks to the needs or aspirations of the individual worker.
Last year, the Pew Research Center reported that 55% of U.S. corporate employees say their jobs, far from providing a sense of meaning, ‘are just what they do for a living.’ Charles Taylor describes the resulting condition perfectly with his observation that when fullness is missing, “all our actions and goals lack weight and substance,” rendering life “flat, empty” (A Secular Age, pp.307, 506). The values management hoped would fit you like a tailored suit in reality just feel like a uniform.
© Ken Hines 2020
Ken Hines studied philosophy at the College of William and Mary, and the University of Virginia; the perfect preparation for a career as an ad agency creative director.