People have defined work in terms of purpose for as long as we’ve been working. These purposes have varied widely, from earning the means of subsistence to disrupting markets, and from proving one’s eligibility for salvation to changing the world—or at least inspiring venture capitalists to fund your startup.
The English noun “work” descends from the Old English weorc, which broadly meant the products of labor. For all the clichés about the dignity of that labor, it’s also worth noting that the concept of work is closely related to compulsion in Romance languages. As Jeremy Seabrook explains, both the French travail and the Spanish trabajo come from the Latin trepaliare, which means to torture, to inflict suffering or agony.
So in part, we work because we have to. But that isn’t all there is to it: Across time and geography, people have found tight connections between what we do and why we do it.
The 20th century political philosopher Hannah Arendt famously reduced the entire purpose of life to a four‑word hierarchy defined by the value of work. At the bottom of the stack came “labor” (what we do to stay alive). Next came “work” proper (creating objects of lasting value).
Second from the top came “action,” which Arendt defines as the words and deeds by which we reveal ourselves to our fellow humans. At the summit she placed “contemplation” (what Arendt got to do while the rest of us were busy laboring, or working if we were lucky).
As with the Hierarchy of Needs that Abraham Maslow proposed in the 1940s, the basic idea is that work becomes steadily more meaningful as we move up the chain from subsistence to purpose.
The meaning of work is also defined by social and economic context, from the artisan/family units of the Middle Ages, to the corporations, unions and national labor laws that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries, to today’s world of multinational corporations that employ itinerant “gig workers.”
Finally, the meaning and purpose of work have been heavily influenced by the technologies used to produce goods and services. The purpose of work evolves as we move from the farm to the assembly line, and from manual production of tangible goods to the digital production of services. In a world where intelligent software increasingly performs tasks that were once human preserves, what does it “mean” to work on a team where not all your colleagues are human?
Here at ServiceNow, our purpose is to make the world of work, work better for people. We do it by digitizing the mundane activities (signing up for HR benefits, routing customer queries, provisioning servers) that interfere with whatever creates meaning for employees and strategic value for companies.
So what’s the higher purpose of what you do to pay the bills? If a new ServiceNow survey is any guide, meaningful work is probably near the top of the list. With help from our friends at Edelman Intelligence, we asked workers across the U.S. to name the gift that they would most like to receive from their bosses this holiday season.
Nearly two thirds of our respondents (61%) chose “more meaningful work,” followed by “better work‑life balance” (48%) and “a raise” (34%). Here’s hoping you get your heart’s desire for the holidays, and that your work next year involves the production of meaning as well as economic value.