The recession is causing tension in the job market and uncertainty in many families. But according to Jurriaan Kamp there is a deeper crisis lurking behind the current malaise: the modern economic system is creating fewer and fewer jobs that people find gratifying.
‘I’m looking for more passion, more commitment in my work,’ the note read. It was from Merel, a young woman I had met four years ago, when she was still a law student. At that time she was one of the organisers of a symposium on happiness for students and business leaders, for which I was invited to speak. The symposium focused on questions such as: ‘Isn’t happiness the most important goal in life?’ and, ‘Shouldn’t our daily work be foremost an instrument in our search for happiness?’ Good questions from passionate students standing at the threshold of society. We talked about the importance of ideals and how difficult it is to carry the dreams of your student days into the ‘real’ world.
I hadn’t heard from Merel for several years. Apparently she had found work in the legal system – at first glance a good choice for someone who wanted to be socially involved. But it turns out she still hasn’t found the enthusiasm and inspiration – the happiness – she knew in her student days just a few short years ago.
We regularly receive letters, emails and phone calls like Merel’s note at Ode. They seem to be coming in more often, although we don’t count them. Ode is not an employment agency, but people think we can put them in touch with organisations that have a different or innovative approach to business and society. After all, that’s what we write about. And every once in a while we manage to help someone on their individual odyssey by pointing them down a new path.
Merel’s story is illustrative. For at least 20 years the midlife crisis has been a staple of Western work lore; men in their forties start wondering if hard work really is the key to happiness. But it seems midlife crises are becoming early-life crises. More turnover, bigger profits, higher salaries, it turns out, are not ultimately satisfying life goals; especially if they cause more and more stress and leave less and less time for other important – perhaps the most important – things in life, like your family and friends.
Merel and her fellow searchers want to make their own, individual contribution to something that will make this world a better place. They might be looking for an organisation that promotes fair trade between the North and South, or a company that produces ecological products. They no longer consider business as usual – the introduction of another ‘new and improved’ laundry detergent – to be a gratifying option. They are looking for a different kind of experience, one that is illustrated by the following parable. In the Middle Ages, a man approached two stonemasons and asked them what they were doing. The first stonemason replied: ‘I am laying stones’. The other answered: ‘I am building a cathedral’.
Apparently we’re not building enough cathedrals.
For years I worked for a newspaper, with pleasure. It was wonderful to be able to hold the fruits of your labour in your hands every day. In the evening you saw what you had done in the morning – and what could be improved the day after. In the early 90s I worked as an editor for the paper’s business section. They were exciting times. The great merger wave of the 1990s was just beginning. Each month a new, larger merger was announced, and time again we had to rise to the challenge of outlining the consequences for the economy and for society. Globalisation didn’t yet have the meaning it now has, but a pattern was becoming obvious, and Dutch journalists could see our national frontiers beginning to dissolve.
Nevertheless, I began to lose interest in my work. The ninth merger is less exciting than the first. I began to question the logic of laying off all those workers in the name of shareholder profits. Shouldn’t we be more critical of the economic orthodoxy? But I knew that there was little room for such fundamental questions at a daily newspaper; there, too, the saying ‘business as usual’ applies. I finally decided to branch out into another direction. On a warm summer’s day in 1994 I decided I would start a magazine. Ode was born.
I now realise that I am privileged person. Not only did my life-changing idea come to me, but I was able to make it a reality. Such an idea is worth a cathedral – or at least a small church. It focuses your energy and enthusiasm on something that gives sense and meaning to your life. Such an idea will never become a nine-to-five job. It becomes more like a child that you care for 24 hours a day.
Making a magazine like Ode is inspiring work. The continual hunt for initiatives and people who point the way to a healthier, happier and cleaner world is fascinating. But it’s not always easy, or even enjoyable. I have my Sunday mornings trying to balance the books and my sleepless nights worrying about financial problems. Owning a business means dealing with stress. But somehow the stress seems easier to bear. It’s not the same as the frustration people in large organisations experience when they find their initiatives – their creativity – run aground on unwilling bosses and colleagues. Even a seemingly menial task like staying late sealing envelopes – we have no mailroom at Ode – takes on meaning when you’re building a cathedral.
I speak with a lot of people who are looking for their cathedral. People like Merel, who knows her job at the court isn’t bringing her the gratification she seeks, but who (still) has no idea what truly moves her soul. This lack of meaning is a direct consequence of the economic model that governs our society. Much has changed since the cathedrals were built. In those days, things were made because they were needed. Now, things are made because they have to be sold. This is a fundamental difference. Need spawns commitment and meaning. Just think of the emergency road service mechanic who helps people in distress. And then think of the cashier who scans bar codes all day. For whom? And for how long? How long will it be before supermarket customers start scanning their own purchases?
Make no mistake: somewhere in a drawer at the headquarters of one multinational or another lies a plan for cashier-less supermarkets. Few are the companies that don’t have plans to increase production; to earn more with fewer workers. The essence of our economic model is to make more money. Labour is expensive. Higher expenses mean lower profits. Lesson: keep as few people on the payroll as possible.
So many of those lucky enough to have a job, have the feeling that they are not really wanted; that they have nothing real to contribute to their organisation. The battle for ever-higher profit margins leaves work devoid of meaning.
The world has changed in a single generation. The son of Frits Philips – the 98-year old former CEO of the company of that name, and son of its founder, Anton Philips – told me that his father had been shocked by a recent news report. He had heard the managing director of a Philips plant announce its closure without so much as a word about the pain and sadness of the people who were going to lose their jobs. Philips Sr.: ‘Why do think that we opened a factory in Drachten [a town in the poorer northern part of the Netherlands – eds.] after the war? Of course that was inconvenient for us, but that was where people needed work.’ Philips brought economic security in times of uncertainty, and by so doing provided a future – a sense and a meaning – for many lives.
These days Wal-Mart, with an annual turnover of US$220 billion, is hailed as one of the most successful companies in the world. But what does Wal-Mart actually do? It opens superstores near towns and small cities in the United States; it destroys the local retail market. In return its employees earn $8.50 an hour, some $18,000 a year, which is below the official US poverty line for a family with two children and single cost-earner. You can only wonder what sort of fulfilment Wal-Mart brings the small-business owners it has forced out of business and on to its payroll.
As early as 1995, the American historian Paul Kennedy wrote a pointed article on this odd phenomenon. He related the story of British Steel, which in the 1970s was regarded as a sluggish, inefficient state-owned enterprise with hundreds of thousands of employees and 37 plants in England. In 20 years’ time British Steel was transformed into the model of success of the European steel industry: 33 plants were shut down and 85% of the workers lost their jobs.
Such stories are now in abundance. Banks close their offices and hang cash dispensers on their walls. Insurance companies have their policies drawn up in India. Kennedy asks a poignant question: Where are the new jobs for all those unemployed people supposed to come from? ‘My economist friends have no answers, or say: “Maybe healthcare?” But the healthcare sector has also been caught in the drive for financial efficiency – the drive to do as much as possible with as few workers as possible.
It is true that in the past 10 years the service and communications industries have created many new jobs. But that hasn’t solved the fundamental problem: our economic model does not like work. The jobs that our production-dominated economy does create are fulfilling for an increasingly shorter period of time. Twenty years ago, a computer programmer was someone others looked up to, someone with solid career prospects. These days he increasingly finds himself at home and out of work, as someone is doing his job in Asia or Eastern Europe. The modern-day economy creates throwaway jobs. And just as modern disposable footwear gives a different sense of satisfaction than the pair of shoes I’ve been wearing for the last 25 years now, so will the fulfilment a person gets from a ‘disposable job’ be different from that of a medieval stone mason.
Social and sustainable entrepreneurship has been presented as an answer to the Western economy’s fulfilment-deficit. It certainly presents opportunities. I was talking with a friend who had recently given up his job with the multinational Unilever to accept a position with a small firm trading in biological tea and herbs. His new company will never make the front page – let alone the stock market reports. But my friend told me that he enjoyed his daily work much more now that he is helping people to live healthier lives.
There are countless innovative, often small-scaled, initiatives in dire need of enthusiasm and talent. There are also many initiatives that still need to be taken, ideas yet to be picked. But they require a skill many people no longer possess. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, creating work was a common skill. You still come across it in cities in the developing world. In La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, I saw ‘mobile telephone booths’ walking around: women with cell phones chained to them, which you could pay to use. It’s typical of the kind of job you come up with if work is not something that is given to you by someone else and there is no such thing as social security.
The current generation of Western workers has largely forgotten how to work on their own. When I ask the people who knock on our door in search of more meaningful work: ‘What are your dreams?’ they often tell me that their ideal is to have a business of their own. But only one in a hundred actually launches a start-up. The paradox is that many people are paralysed by the plenitude of options. These days in the West you choose your job from an overwhelming list of career possibilities. But making the right choice isn’t easy. In the old days, you had no choice. If your father was a farmer, you became one too. You built on a tradition and you tried to leave the land in a better state for your children and their children. That was your contribution, the meaning of your life.
As the seventh generation of brewers of Gulpener beer – one of the last independent beer brewers in the Netherlands – Paul Rutten is a privileged man in more than one way. It’s easy to see how you can derive satisfaction from contributing to the ongoing development of a company to which so many of your forefathers dedicated their lives. In this context, socially sound entrepreneurship is, in a strange way, a modern excess. The Rutten family knows of no other way. For 200 years now, they have been indissolubly tied to the community where their brewery is located. These close ties give meaning to the daily lives of the people who work for the Gulpener brewery.
This type of sustainable entrepreneurship will gain in momentum. Even in these times of economic setbacks, the annual reports of many companies make no bones about it: sustainability and socially sound entrepreneurship are the new pillars of business. An increasing number of them will develop organic lines and strengthen the ties with neighbouring communities, and many people will find it inspiring to become involved with such initiatives.
And yet I believe the prospects of sustainable entrepreneurship are limited. Initially, the assembly-line workers in the first Ford factory found it fulfilling to be involved with a new product that appealed to the imaginations of people all over the world. ‘What do you do?’ ‘I work for Ford.’ It must have been said with pride. But how much pride do the factory lines in Motown inspire these days?
Someone now in the business of selling organic food, is contributing to the future of clean, sustainable agriculture. That is a meaningful activity. But that activity, too, is trapped in the governing economic model. The economy must continue to grow. New products must continue to be launched. Just as we now are no longer satisfied with one brand of chemical detergent, so will we later need more and more tubes of organic toothpaste. The gratification that results from the marketing of that tube will diminish with each subsequent introduction.
In the end it always comes down to the same thing: how to stimulate consumption, often beyond what is necessary, in order to keep the economy running. ‘Humans don’t exist to stop the economy from collapsing, do they?’ read the text on a Dutch protest poster. It is a bitter truth, but in our world that is exactly how it is. Without new laundry detergents old-age pensions cannot be paid. Weapons are sold to keep the economy running. (If the US defence industry were shut down, the unemployment statistics would shoot through the roof.) People grow too fat because they are continually tempted – in the interest of economic progress – to eat too much. If we don’t flock back to the shops, the recession will not blow over. My 25-year-old shoes are bad news for economic development. If we were all to consume the way my 93-year-old grandmother does, who still meticulously puts the leftovers of every meal in the refrigerator, the Western world would be in a permanent state of recession.
Recessions are the ultimate result of our present economic model. If the economy must grow each year, growing pains become unavoidable. Companies reach a point where they become too optimistic and invest too much. There is no market for their overproduction. They stop the production flow to induce a cooling-off period. It used to take decades before a country’s economy grew 2%, but that has been the average annual growth in the West since World War II. There have been fluctuations in the (agricultural) production, but they were caused by the weather more than anything else. Our ancestors did not live with the stress of vital economic growth, nor with the pain of recession. In the today’s world these are things from which no one can escape.
Nor can Ode. We are blessed with loyal subscribers who don’t turn away from us the minute they hear news about sluggish economic growth and feel pressed to cut down on household expenses. But our income from advertisements is highly sensitive to the economic climate. We are experiencing it again this year. I like to think of Ode as a ‘product’ that stands above the modern economic madness. It would not be in the Ode style if we were to suddenly get an influx of subscribers when times were good. I see those matters as being relatively independent of each other. I hope people get inspiration from reading Ode, and find matters to reflect upon. I don’t want them to see it as a frivolity their higher incomes afford them. But in the past months I have been faced with the frustrations of looming red figures in our company ledgers. I worry about the future of my family and that of my colleagues. Many lives are linked to the ideal that is Ode. I notice how I tend to freeze – just as other entrepreneurs do. And I feel like a pawn in the very game I was trying to stay out of with Ode. Suddenly I find myself reading the headlines with the latest economic developments. The recession brings me, too, back to square one. In other words: following your heart does not protect you from the whims of the economy.
Is there an answer to recession? Maybe there is. But maybe it lies outside orthodox economic models. The continuous economic growth of the consumer society in the past 100 years has brought tremendous prosperity to the inhabitants of the Western world. That would not have been possible without the production-oriented model of the Industrial Revolution. But the challenges now facing our wealthy societies – ecological destruction, social alienation, the increasing gap between rich and poor as well as the lack of meaningful work – are also a direct consequence of the age of industry.
The American sociologist Abraham Maslow once drew a pyramid of human existence. At the bottom of the pyramid are survival, reproduction and material security. At the top of the pyramid are spiritual needs, such as self-expression. Once material security has been achieved, the search for meaning comes to the spiritual plane. After World War II, Philips provided the essential necessities of life by bringing jobs to Drachten. Now, in today’s context, the same jobs do not grant the same satisfaction. The future seems to challenge us to set different priorities.
The economy as we know it is creating less and less meaningful work. That is the true crisis. The truth is that Western society is heading with increasing speed towards a situation in which only a limited part of humanity is needed for the production of its vital goods and services. As early as 1930, John Maynard Keynes warned in Essays and Persuasions: ‘Once the problem of the economy is solved, mankind will lose its traditional aim and for the first time will be faced with its true challenge: how to use the freedom it has gained.’
But this is not just a threat. It is also an opportunity. It offers the prospect of choosing other goals. After all, it is the essence of society, in which people co-exist, that they make a meaningful contribution to it. The chief goal of the past 200 years – the production of material wealth – creates problems and no longer offers true fulfilment.
Once the ancient Greeks had achieved – through the use of slave labour – the level of comfort their society desired, they formulated a new goal: Padeia, the self-development and continuous learning of the individual. Society was rearranged and reorganised with that purpose in mind. The stress was on spiritual, rather than material growth. They could do this because the majority of the Greek population did not have to concern itself with providing life’s necessities.
Such a radical change is now hard for us to imagine. And, it must be said, it is as yet only relevant to Western consumer society: the Greek slaves of today are not just computers and robots. The West farms out ever more low-wage work to developing countries – where, in accordance with Maslow’s words, for the time being, it leads to increased subsistence security, and therefore to fulfilment.
But there is an unmistakable development: humanity increasingly finds itself confronted with the question of the post-production meaning of life. There is probably no greater challenge in this world than the exploration of our consciousness. Almost everything you can hold has been researched and analysed, but science has steered clear of the elusive subject of consciousness. But now an increasing number of scientists are picking up the challenge. Scientific books are being published on the effect of prayer on healing. There are similar books on telepathy. In quantum physics and biology relationships are being found with spirituality.
Perhaps these pioneers are pointing the way, just as scientists pointed the way that led to the successes of the age of industry. There is a clear link between the scientists, such as Copernicus and Newton, who discovered the laws of the universe, and the invention of electricity and the internal combustion engine, which form the foundation of our present material wealth. Once again, science could be laying the foundation for a revolution – from the production of material goods to spiritual growth and development.
One thing is certain: when it comes to learning and discovery there is more than enough work to be done. In addition to its almost limitless possibilities in terms of employment, the learning society just might take us closer to the holy grail that many of us seek in our work today: meaning. Our future is a ‘developing country’, to use the striking phrase the American scientist and writer Willis Harman coined in ‘Global Mind Change’ (Berrett-Koehler, 1998). Harman’s statement fits neatly with the experiences of the majority of this planet’s inhabitants, for whom this entire discussion must seem frivolous or irrelevant. For many countries increased economic production is still an essential step towards more prosperity. But what is the point if Africa, Asia and Latin America were to swing as far as Europe and the US have to the other extreme? Do those countries not also have a large and growing need to protect their own cultures against the aberrations of the consumer society?
As you read this, we are still in a recession. The practical steps that will lead from today’s jobs, which alienate, pollute and do not satisfy, to a future of inspiring work in a permanent ‘developing country’ cannot be taken all at once. Where will the money for the growing world population come from if there is no increase in production? Won’t we need more money if we attribute a different value to services and goods? Is our economy really still growing?
But by starting by asking such questions we are making the future. In any case, it is an attractive prospect to think in terms of – and to open your mind to – new opportunities, rather than allow yourself to be paralysed by fear of the recession, of losing your job and of the looming closure of your business. Maybe we are privileged to live in an age not only of great changes, but too also to be able to see the outlines of the result of those changes.
This recession, too, will pass, but the revolution from the age of industrial production to a new episode has been set in motion. The good news is that the crisis above all offers opportunities to all those people who are in search of more sense and meaning in their lives.
Is our economic model to blame for the fact that fewer and fewer people have fulfilling jobs? Join the debate in the Forum on this article in our Dialogue.