The Meaning Motive

Money it just buys, new ways to disguise, the freedom you don’t own anymore.”

– The Manic Street Preacher s

The Post-Scarcity Economy is an idea that science fiction writers love to toy with. They imagine a future where people don’t need to work anymore because AI and robotics, and other fancy tech, have made the necessities of life virtually free. 

The problem with this idea is that, from what I can see, for many people this is already the way things are. Think about how much of your income is really spent on necessities. The broken state of the housing market messes with the figures a fair bit but when I look at my spending I know that what I actually need to live and what I want are two very different things.

Our economy depends on this fact. As the basics of life become cheaper and more abundant it’s vital that we find new things to spend our money on. High tech entertainments, luxury holidays, chocolates, wine, fashionable clothing, new kitchen gadgets, status symbols of endless varieties. Nothing makes this more abundantly clear than the wedding industry.

According to Brides Magazine, in 2015 the average price of a wedding was 24,000 GBP. In the 1990s most weddings cost roughly 5000 GBP. Even allowing for inflation the increase in the cost of weddings is extraordinary and this, I feel, is an excellent barometer for how our culture works on us to spend on things we don’t need.

It’s a great barometer because the technical requirements of weddings haven’t really changed that much in decades. They involve a group of people gathering together for a ceremony and a party. There’s food, drink, music and dancing. Nothing about a wedding, aside from the ceremony, is strictly a necessity, and almost everything else can vary in price massively depending on how much you want to spend. The reception is almost exclusively discretionary spending and, what’s more, discretionary spending with a great deal of social status attached. Weddings are displays of wealth and taste as much as they are anything else. Just like luxury watches and fast cars, weddings are a chance for people to show others who they want to be seen to be.

This economic model is powerful but I fear it is also limiting to human flourishing. An aspirational culture, the one needed to get people to spend money on endless status symbols, is a culture that breeds high rates of depression and anxiety and dehumanises as a means to pump the engine of growth. The endless sense of scarcity, the feeling that you will never have enough, are the results of an abusive culture and we need to bring an end to it. If not for ourselves, for the young people who we are raising now. In fact, it is my hope that the young are our salvation.

A few weeks ago I commented on a LinkedIn post in which someone lamented that he couldn’t get his kids to vacuum the house because they valued time on their iPads over the money he’d offered them to do the work. Leaving aside the obvious questions about this person’s parenting tactics I couldn’t help but think that he should be celebrating their choice. These children could have done something that was in their words “boring” for some money they didn’t need, or they could have spent that discretionary time doing something they enjoyed. I didn’t see this as laziness (I don’t believe laziness is a thing). I saw this as two young people realising that doing something they enjoyed was more important than making money.

Our assumptions about work are predicated on the idea that the primary purpose of work is to make money. Most enlightened workplaces also believe that work should be made meaningful and, where possible, enjoyable for their staff. But this is only so long as it improves profits. I believe it is time to reverse this equation.

What if the primary purpose of a business was to provide employees with meaningful work? What if making a profit was the byproduct of meaningful work instead of the other way around? 

This may seem like one of those head in the sky ideas but it is anything but. We have a choice as we move into the future. As AI and robotics make many jobs redundant and drive down the cost of goods, the assumption that humans have to work to earn money becomes hard to support. We must either find ways to keep people arbitrarily busy or give people another reason to work. If our culture has not already begun the shift away from the profit motive to the meaning motive we may be in for considerable social, cultural, and mental health problems.

What’s more, when people work for meaning instead of money, they do better work. Money is a great motivator when what you want is simple, uncreative output. But these jobs are already on the way out. As soon as you want creative, deeply human work, money ceases to be a great incentive and begins to work against you. Offer people money and you take away their agency, remove their autonomy. You also narrow focus leading to less creative ideas.

Money also causes problems with the alignment of incentives. If people are focused on money then getting the credit is more important than doing great work. When the work is what matters because the incentive is in the intrinsic meaningfulness of the work, while you may still have people who hunt glory, you will find that most become less selfish, more open, and teams function better.

So The Meaning Motive (it feels like it should be capitalised now) is not only a way to avoid the cliff edge of automation it is also better for business. Your business.

If we accept that The Meaning Motive is where we should be heading the question becomes that of how. Like all large scale shifts this is not a quick and easy fix. Most people are painfully bad at thinking and talking about meaning. We have a culture that works to remove meaning as a valid discussion in the workplace. To work towards this we have to begin by talking about meaning. A lot.

In my work I use coaching, play, and mindfulness to explore creativity. It’s through coaching, play, and mindfulness, that I find it’s possible to access deeper insights, find the underlying causes of various creativity killing habits, beliefs, and attitudes. I believe that these same techniques could be the path to helping people understand what they find to be meaningful, to see what really drives them.

These are my immediate recommendations: 

  1. If you run a small business start to build meaningfulness into work discussions, especially when setting targets or making plans
  2. If you are part of a larger business appoint a Chief Meaning Officer to begin to build meaningfulness into your long term strategy
  3. If you are a parent, talk to your child about meaningfulness and encourage him or her to develop and nurture their own curiosity and intrinsic drive
  4. Whoever you are, if you’re really convinced by this, get in touch with me. We need to work together.

By Aran Rees, 
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