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Recent research suggests that many workers in modern economies think that their job is socially useless, i.e., that it makes no or a negative contribution to society. However, the evidence so far is mainly anecdotal. We use a representative dataset comprising 100,000 workers from forty‐seven countries at four points in time. We find that approximately 8 percent of workers perceive their job as socially useless, while another 17 percent are doubtful about the usefulness of their job. There are sizeable differences among countries, sectors, occupations, and age groups, but no trend over time. A vast majority of workers cares about holding a socially useful job and we find that they suffer when they consider their job useless. We also explore possible causes of socially useless jobs, including bad management, strict job protection legislation, harmful economic activities, labor hoarding, and division of labor.
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Socially Useless Jobs*
Recent research suggests that many workers in modern economies think that their job
is socially useless, i.e., that it makes no or a negative contribution to society. However,
the evidence so far is mainly anecdotal. We use a representative dataset comprising
100,000 workers from forty-seven countries at four points in time. We nd that
approximately 8 percent of workers perceive their job as socially useless, while
another 17 percent are doubtful about the usefulness of their job. There are sizeable
differences among countries, sectors, occupations, and age groups, but no trend over
time. A vast majority of workers cares about holding a socially useful job and we nd
that they suffer when they consider their job useless. We also explore possible causes
of socially useless jobs, including bad management, strict job protection legislation,
harmful economic activities, labor hoarding, and division of labor.
In a widely read essay, anthropologist David Graeber (2013: n.p.) has claimed
on the basis of anecdotal evidence that Huge swathes of people, in Europe and
North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks
they secretly believe do not really need to be performed(see also Graeber
2018). This claim, if true, is worrisome for at least three reasons. First, inasfar as
workersbeliefs reect the true usefulness of their job, it would mean a huge
waste of resources. Second, experimental studies (Ariely, Kamenica, and Prelec
2008; Carpenter and Gong 2016; Grant 2008; Kosfeld, Neckerman, and Yang
2017) have shown that motivation and, hence, productivity, deteriorate when
workers consider their job to be useless or harmful, which is problematic when
jobs are actually useful. Third, and independent of the true usefulness of the job,
JEL: J2, J3, J4, J8, M5.
*The authorsafliations are, respectively, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and
Tinbergen Institute, CESifo, and IZA. E-mail:; and Leiden University, Leiden, the Nether-
lands. E-mail: The authors are grateful to Anne Boring, Josse Delfgaauw,
Sacha Kapoor, Arjan Non, Sandra Phlippen, Joeri Sol, Bauke Visser, Olaf van Vliet, and the editor and a
reviewer of this journal for useful comments. They also thank seminar participants at the LSE, Erasmus
University Rotterdam, and Leiden University as well as participants of the Reinhard Selten Institute Work-
shop New Challenges, New Objectives and New Tools for Public Policyin Cologne.
INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS, DOI: 10.1111/irel.12227. Vol. 58, No. 1 (January 2019). ©2018 The Regents of
the University of California Published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc., 350 Main Street, Malden,
MA 02148, USA, and 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ, UK.
job satisfaction and well-being will be lower for those workers who care about
doing a useful job, but perceive their job as useless.
This paper studies socially useless jobs using a large representative dataset
the International Social Survey Program, Work Orientations Wavescovering
more than 100,000 workers from forty-seven countries in 1989, 1997, 2005, and
2015. We address the following issues: How many workers consider their job to
be socially useless? How does this differ among countries, sectors, occupations,
cohorts, age groups, and over time? Do workers suffer when they perceive their
job to be useless? What explains the existence of socially useless jobs? And,
nally, what can be done about the perceived social uselessness of jobs?
Our study is limited to workerssubjective assessment of the social useful-
ness of their job, which we measure by workersresponse to the statement,
My job is useful to society.Ideally, we would also consider the true useful-
ness of jobs, as well as how that relates to workersperceptions. However,
objective measures are hard to nd (cf. Lockwood, Nathanson, and Weyl
2017) or may not even exist (Graeber 2013). As a result, we will not be able
to speak to the issue of whether there is a substantial waste of human
resources. We are, however, in a good position to speak to the other major
issues mentioned aboveworkersmotivation, productivity, and satisfaction
as these are affected by the workersperceived social impact, not by the true
social impact of their work.
Our focus on the social usefulness of jobs differs from Dekker (2018), who
independently from and concurrently with the present studyexamined the
responses of workers to the more general question I doubt the importance of my
workusing the European Working Conditions Survey 2015. Likewise, Hu and
Hirsh (2017) used a composite measure of meaningful work,which includes
whether the job is interesting and whether one can help other people on the job.
Closer to our denition, YouGov surveyed a sample of workers in the UK in
2015 asking whether their job is making a meaningful contribution to the world,
nding a higher percentage of workers who disagree than we do.
Our paper is structured as follows. In the next section, we will examine workers
perceptions of the social usefulness of their jobs and how that differs across and
within countries and over time. We then study workersdesire for a socially useful
job and the consequences of holding a socially useless job for job satisfaction, the
pride workers take in their job, and workersjob search behavior. We then turn to
possible explanations for the existence of socially useless jobs. We explore the role
See also Steger, Dik, and Duffy (2012) for an extensive description of several dimensions of meaning-
ful work and Kaplan and Schulhofer-Wohl (2018) for an analysis of how meaningful U.S. workers nd their
of bad management, strict job protection legislation, harmful economic activities,
labor hoarding, and division of labor. The last section concludes with a brief sum-
mary and a discussion of what governments, employers, and workers can do to pre-
vent socially useless jobs from emerging or persisting.
Who Considers Their Job to Be Socially Useless?
We assume a worker considers his job to be socially useless when he dis-
agrees or strongly disagrees with the statement My job is useful to society.
Using this classication, we nd for the sample of workers in the 2015-wave
which includes more than 27,000 workers in thirty-seven countriesthat 8
percent perceive their job to be socially useless. In contrast, close to 75 per-
cent of workers agrees or strongly agrees with the statement. The remaining
17 percent neither agrees nor disagrees, and so they seem doubtful about the
usefulness of their job.
Figure 1 shows considerable differences between countries in the percentage
of workers perceiving their job as socially useless, with relatively high shares
in countries such as Poland, Japan, Israel, and India, and relatively low shares
in Norway, Switzerland, and Mexico. There is some variation over time in the
share of socially useless jobs, but no clear time trend: it moves from 6 percent
in 1989, to 10 percent in 1997, back to 6 percent in 2005.
The pattern over
time mirrors the business cycle, with lower shares during booms and higher
shares during recessions, an issue we will return to later, when we examine
possible explanations for socially useless jobs.
Table 1 reports the results of regressing whether a worker considers her job
to be socially useless on sector of employment, whether one holds a manage-
ment position, and a set of demographic characteristics.
In line with a rich lit-
erature in public administration and economics (Besley and Ghatak 2018;
Francois and Vlassopoulos 2008; Perry and Vandenabelee 2015), we nd that
workers in the public sector are much less likely to report having a socially
useless job than workers in the private sector (more than 6 percentage points
lower, which is large compared to the average of 8 percent in the full sample).
Further inspection of the data shows that this holds particularly for occupations
such as re ghters, police ofcers, social benets ofcials, health workers,
Respondents could also choose Cant choose,which was chosen by slightly more than 1 percent.
Countries included in the sample vary from wave to wave, but correcting for this does not change the
pattern over time in an important way, see Table S1 in the supporting information.
Throughout this paper we use ordinary least squares (OLS) regression models for ease of interpreta-
tion; logistic regressions give similar results.
Socially Useless Jobs /5
and teachers. For these occupations, we nd that the percentage of workers
reporting socially useless work is close to or equal to zero; see Table S2 in
supporting information. In contrast, for government clerks and the armed
forces we nd percentages closer to the sample average. Regarding the demo-
graphic variables, we nd no signicant gender difference and a weak, but sta-
tistically signicant, negative relation with years of education. In contrast to
what is sometimes thought (Graeber 2013), managers are not more likely to
report socially useless work than regular workers, and this holds for both mid-
dle managers and top managers. Last, we nd sizeable associations with cohort
and age; see the coefcients plotted in Figure 2. Holding age constant, cohorts
born before World War II are less likely to perceive their job as socially use-
less, particularly the cohort born before 1921.
Holding constant the cohort,
older workers are much less likely to perceive their job as socially useless.
This age pattern may arise for a variety of reasons including job shopping
by young workers in search for a meaningful job and early retirement by old
workers who consider their job socially useless.
SOURCE:International Social Survey Program, Work Orientations Wave 2015. [Color gure can
be viewed at]
When interpreting these coefcients, it is important to keep in mind that the regression in Table 1 does
not include time xed effects, because of the linear dependency of age, cohort, and time effects.
NOTES:The dot depicts the coefcient and the line the 95-percent condence interval of the
coefcient estimated in the regression in Table 1. The reference categories are Birthyear 1941
1960 and Age 4150. [Color gure can be viewed at]
Dependent Variable Socially Useless Job
Public sector 0.063
Top manager 0.024
Middle manager 0.001
Years of education 0.0001
Female 0.002
Birth cohort and age group dummies Yes
Country xed effects Yes
Observations 86,469
NOTES: OLS regression. Mean of dependent variable is 0.079. Standard errors in parentheses *p<0.1; ***p<0.01.
Socially Useless Jobs /7
Do Workers Suffer When They Perceive Their Job to Be Socially
Having a job that is useful to society is considered an important job charac-
teristic by a vast majority of workers: Table 2 shows that close to 77 percent
of the 2015 wave nds this important or very important. Not all of these work-
ers manage to get a job they consider socially useful. Fifty percent of socially
useless jobs are occupied by workers who nd it important to have a socially
useful job. However, the data do suggest that there is some sorting of workers
to jobs on the basis of preferences, as workers who do not care about the use-
fulness of their job are clearly overrepresented among those who perceive their
job as socially useless. We nd similar results for the other waves.
Workers who care about holding a socially useful job report lower job satisfac-
tion when they perceive their job as useless. In the rst column of Table 3, we
Dont Mind Having a Socially Useless Job
Considers Job Socially Useless No Yes Total
No 73% 19% 92%
Yes 4% 4% 8%
Total 77% 23% 100%
NOTES: Workers consider their job as socially useless when they do not agree with the following statement: My job is use-
ful to society.Workers do not mind having a socially useless job when they do not nd it important to have a job that
is useful to society.
Dependent Variable Job Satisfaction
Socially useless job (SUJ) 0.77
(0.03) (0.03) (0.03)
Dont mind having a SUJ 0.22
(0.02) (0.02) (0.02)
Dont mind having a SUJ x SUJ 0.40
(0.05) (0.05) (0.05)
Demographic characteristics Yes Yes Yes
Country xed effects Yes Yes Yes
Other job characteristics No Yes Yes
Wage dummies per countries No No Yes
Observations 26.184 26.184 26.184
0.09 0.21 0.29
NOTES: Job satisfaction is measured using a 7-point scale; a higher value means more satised. The mean is 5.32 and the
standard deviation is 1.17. Standard errors in parentheses. ***p< 0.01.
regress a workers job satisfaction (measured on a 7-point scale) on whether she
holds a socially useless job, whether she cares about holding a socially useless job,
and the interaction between these two variables. We also include a set of demo-
graphic characteristics (age, gender, and education) and country xed effects.
nd a strong negative relation between holding a socially useless job and job satis-
faction for those who care, while the relationship is much weaker for those who
indicate not caring about holding a socially useless job.
In the second column, we add a range of other job characteristics as controls,
resulting in a slightly weakerbut still highly signicantrelationship between
holding a socially useless job and job satisfaction for those who care.
The drop
in the coefcient reects that workers who hold a socially useless job often-
times also report that other job characteristics are less attractive, such as a lack
of opportunities for advancement and job insecurity. Not including these as
controls leads to a bias away from zero in the coefcient of main interest.
In the nal column of Table 3, we add as a control the workerswage,
which is measured in country-specic intervals. If the theory of compensating
wage differentials (Rosen 1974) holds, then we expect that socially useless jobs
pay higher wages to compensate for the disamenity. Not controlling for wages
in the job satisfaction regression then biases the estimate of the true nonpecu-
niary loss of holding a socially useless job toward zero. However, we nd that
the estimate hardly changes, suggesting that workers holding a socially useless
job are not nancially compensated for this disamenity. The estimated coef-
cient implies that, for those who care, holding a socially useless job is associ-
ated with a drop in job satisfaction by 45 percent of a standard deviation,
which is comparable to the association of job satisfaction with other important
job characteristics, such as job security, opportunities for advancement, and
being able to work independently; see the rst column in Table 4.
We ran the same regressions for other important outcome variables, and nd
results in line with those for job satisfaction; see the second, third, and fourth
column in Table 4. Workers who hold a socially useless job and care about
this feel less proud of the type of work they do. They are signicantly more
Table S3 in supporting information provides a version of Table 3 that also reports the coefcients for
the demographic characteristics. The coefcients for the country xed effects are available upon request.
Both the dependent and the main independent variable in the regressions in Table 3 and 4 are respon-
dents subjective assessments, which may give rise to biases, for instance due to omitted variables such as
the respondents personality and mood. While this argument may have some merit, we believe it is not quite
so compelling here, because the workers assessment of the usefulness of his job (the main independent vari-
able) is not so much a statement about his overall feeling of happiness with work. We thank a reviewer for
bringing up this point.
Table S3 provides a description of the job characteristics we control for and the resulting regression
Socially Useless Jobs /9
likely to indicate that, given the chance, they would change their type of work.
Likewise, they nd it more likely that they will try to nd another job within
the next 12 months.
What Explains the Existence of Socially Useless Jobs?
What might explain that about 8 percent of workers perceive their job to be
socially useless? We can think of ve plausible reasons, for which we provide
tentative empirical evidence in what follows.
First, it has been widely recognized that some economic activities harm
rather than help people. Think, for instance, of rms that exploit our psycho-
logical weaknesses and ignorance to make us buy products that we actually do
Dependent Variable (1) (2) (3) (4)
Socially useless job (SUJ) 0.52
(0.03) (0.03) (0.04) (0.03)
Dont mind having a SUJ 0.15
(0.02) (0.01) (0.02) (0.02)
Dont mind having a SUJ x SUJ 0.28
(0.05) (0.04) (0.06) (0.04)
Demographic characteristics Yes Yes Yes Yes
Country xed effects Yes Yes Yes Yes
Other job characteristics
My job is secure 0.38
(0.02) (0.01) (0.02) (0.01)
My opportunities for advancement are high 0.40
(0.02) (0.01) (0.02) (0.01)
I can work independently 0.35
(0.02) (0.01) (0.02) (0.02)
I often have to do hard physical work 0.11
(0.02) (0.01) (0.02) (0.01)
I often nd my work stressful 0.36
(0.01) (0.01) (0.02) (0.01)
Wage dummies per countries Yes Yes Yes Yes
Observations 26.184 25.858 25.500 25.002
0.29 0.29 0.23 0.23
NOTES: The dependent variables are (1) job satisfaction (on a 7-point scale); (2) I am proud of the type of work I do (on a 5-
point scale); (3) given the chance, I would change my present type of work (on a 5-point scale); (4) how likely is it that
you will try to nd a job with another rm within the next 12 months (on a 4-point scale). Standard errors are in parenthe-
ses. **p<0.05; ***p<0.01.
Earlier research has found that workers who nd their job useless more likely suffer from emotional
exhaustion, a distinctive feature of burnout (Grant and Sonnentag 2010).
not need or that harm us (Akerlof and Shiller 2015; Thaler 2018). As a con-
crete example, it has been argued that nancial advice by bankers and insur-
ance agents can be a curse rather than a blessingfor consumers (Inderst and
Ottaviani 2012). Similarly, workers in so-called sin industriessuch as
tobacco and gambling and those involved in rent-seeking and lobbying may
not be convinced that they make a positive contribution to society (Brun, Sch-
neider, and Weber 2017; Murphy, Shleifer, and Vishny 1991).
Our data provide some support for this explanation. Indeed, among the
top-20 occupations with the highest share of workers reporting a socially
useless job, we nd sales, marketing, and public relations professionals,
nance managers,and sales and purchasing agents and brokers(which
include insurance representatives) scoring percentages higher than 14 per-
cent; see Table S4 in supporting information. This is in line with the
empirical evidence in Lockwood, Nathanson, and Weyl (2017)reporting
negative economy-wide externalities for jobs in nance and lawand in
Ashraf and Bandiera (2017)reporting particularly low values of perceived
social impact of bankers engaged in marketing and legal ofces, nance,
and investment banking. Interestingly, economists also make it into the top
20. For workers in sin industriessuch as tobacco and gambling, we
unfortunately lack a sufcient number of observations.
A second explanation relies on Marxs (1844) theory of alienation, which
argues, among other things, that division of labor into highly specialized parts
can make meaningful work look meaningless. We nd some support for this
idea in our data. In the top-20 occupations with the highest share of workers
reporting to have a socially useless job, we nd three occupations for which
Marxs theory may be particularly relevant: stationary plant and machine
operators,”“assemblers,and labourers in mining, construction, manufactur-
ing, and transport performing simple and routine manual taskswith percent-
ages close to 14 percent; see Table S4.
The third explanation relies on the fact that decisions on job creation and
job destruction are typically taken by managers. If managers do a bad job,
socially useless jobs may emerge or persist. We use data from Bloom et al.
(2014) about the average quality of management in the manufacturing industry
for fourteen countries and nd no support for this prediction: management
quality is not negatively associated with the share of socially useless jobs
among workers (see Figure 3). We nd a similar result when replacing the
average quality of management by the percentage of companies that is badly
managed. Unfortunately, we lack data on management quality for more coun-
tries and other industries.
Our fourth explanation is that strict job protection legislation may force
organizations into retaining workers, even when work has disappeared (e.g.,
Socially Useless Jobs /11
due to technological shocks or changing market circumstances), leaving work-
ers with little to do on the job. Using data from the Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development (OECD) about job protection legislation in
thirty-one different countries for several years, we nd no evidence for this
prediction: job protection does not correlate signicantly with the share of
socially useless jobs; see Figure 4.
Our fth and last explanation is labor hoarding, i.e., the tendency of organi-
zations to hold on to more workers than necessary during economic downturns
in anticipation of better times, resulting in on-the-job underemployment
(Okun 1962). Using data from the OECD on the economiesoutput gap in
twenty-seven countries for several years, we nd some support for this idea:
the share of socially useless jobs is signicantly higher when the economic sit-
uation gets worse (a one standard deviation increase in the output gap is asso-
ciated with a 0.5 percentage points increase in the share of socially useless
Source: International Social Survey Program, Work Orientations Wave 2015 and Bloom et al.
Notes: R
=0.02, coefcient: 0.04 (p=0.672). [Color gure can be viewed at wileyonlinelibrary.
jobs; see Figure 5). However, it also appears clearly from the data that socially
useless jobs are not merely observed during recessions.
Concluding Remarks
We have found that about 8 percent of workers consider their job to be
socially useless. An additional 17 percent seem doubtful about the social useful-
ness of their job. While these numbers are much lower than has been suggested
on the basis of anecdotal evidence in Graeber (2013, 2018), the share of workers
perceiving their job to be socially useless is clearly not negligible either. In line
with earlier studies in public administration and economics, we found a big dif-
ference between workers in the public sector and workers in business, with 11
percent of the latter considering their job to be socially useless, while only 3
Source: International Social Survey Program, Work Orientations Wave 2015 and the OECD
Indicators of Employment Protection, Strictness of employment protectionindividual and
collective dismissals (regular contracts);
Notes: R
=0.00, coefcient: 0.00 (p=0.882). [Color gure can be viewed at wileyonlinelibrary.
Socially Useless Jobs /13
percent of public sector workers think about their job in that way. Within busi-
ness, the share of workers considering their job to be socially useless is particu-
larly high in jobs involving simple and routine tasks as well as jobs in nance,
sales, marketing, and public relations. Within the public sector, jobs in educa-
tion, health, and the police force are rarely perceived to be socially useless. Fur-
ther, we have seen that managers and workers do not differ much in how they
evaluate the usefulness of their job, in contrast to what is sometimes thought. Of
the potential causes of socially useless jobs, we found some evidence consistent
with the ideas that division of labor, labor hoarding, and harmful economic
activities may be partly responsible for the existence of socially useless work.
We found no evidence for the hypotheses that bad managers and strict job pro-
tection legislation give rise to socially useless jobs. However, we cannot draw
rm conclusions, as our analysis is correlational in nature.
What can be done to reduce socially useless jobs? We see a role for govern-
ments, employers, and workers. Governments may use taxation to discourage
employers from creating or retaining pointless and harmful jobs and encourage
Source: International Social Survey Program, Work Orientations Wave 2015 and the OECD
Economic Outlook No. 102November 2017, Output gap of the total economy; https://sta
Notes: R
=0.05, coefcient: 0.004 (p=0.071). Lower values mean larger output gap. [Color
gure can be viewed at]
them to create socially useful jobs, an idea recently explored in Lockwood,
Nathanson, and Weyl (2017). Stricter regulation of harmful economic activities
(e.g., through consumer protection laws) may, of course, also contribute to reduc-
ing the number of socially useless jobs. Moreover, even though our preliminary
evidence does not convincingly point in this direction, it seems wise to avoid
unnecessarily strict job protection legislation. Employers can help by removing or
improving bad management (although our tentative empirical evidence on this
does not suggest that management quality plays a big role). When the social use-
lessness of jobs is a matter of perception rather than reality, employers may use
nudging or adapt job design. Last, Valcour (2013) and Coleman (2017) suggest a
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Supporting Information
Additional Supporting Information may be found in the online version of this
Table S1: The fraction of workers who consider their job to be socially useless
over time.
Table S2: Top 20 occupations with the smallest share of workers considering
their job to be socially useless in 2015.
Table S3: Socially useless jobs and job satisfaction in 2015.
Table S4: Top 20 occupations with the largest share of workers considering
their job to be socially useless in 2015.
... In consequence, these results have been analysed regarding several characteristics of the responding workers. Thus, various studies show that there are considerable differences in perceived job-usefulness between countries, economic sectors, occupations, age groups, genders and more (Dahlgreen, 2015;Dean et al., 2022;Delucchi et al., 2021;Dur and van Lent, 2019;Soffia et al., 2022). In addition, studies also show that workers who perceive their job to be socially useless tend to display low job satisfaction (Dur and van Lent, 2019) and low general well-being (Soffia et al., 2022). ...
... Thus, various studies show that there are considerable differences in perceived job-usefulness between countries, economic sectors, occupations, age groups, genders and more (Dahlgreen, 2015;Dean et al., 2022;Delucchi et al., 2021;Dur and van Lent, 2019;Soffia et al., 2022). In addition, studies also show that workers who perceive their job to be socially useless tend to display low job satisfaction (Dur and van Lent, 2019) and low general well-being (Soffia et al., 2022). Various explanations have therefore been proposed as to why people find their jobs socially useless. ...
... In the literature based on Graeber's (2018) theory, several terms with similar meanings are used. Graeber himself, for example, speaks of 'bullshit jobs', while Dur and van Lent (2019) use the term 'socially useless jobs' when testing his theory. In addition, Soffia et al. (2022) also link Graeber's theory with the literature on 'meaningful work'. ...
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Recent studies show that many workers consider their jobs socially useless. Thus, several explanations for this phenomenon have been proposed. David Graeber’s ‘bullshit jobs theory’, for example, claims that some jobs are in fact objectively useless, and that these are found more often in certain occupations than in others. Quantitative research on Europe, however, finds little support for Graeber’s theory and claims that alienation may be better suited to explain why people consider their jobs socially useless. This study extends previous analyses by drawing on a rich, under-utilized dataset and provides new evidence for the United States specifically. Contrary to previous studies, it thus finds robust support for Graeber’s theory on bullshit jobs. At the same time, it also confirms existing evidence on the effects of various other factors, including alienation. Work perceived as socially useless is therefore a multifaceted issue that must be addressed from different angles.
... Job possibilities to contribute Nonetheless, socially responsible work is somewhat normative and shaped by institutional factors (see e.g., Michaelson, 2021). For instance, public policy work is generally seen as altruistic work (e.g., Perry and Wise, 1990;Ritz et al., 2020), whereas jobs related to financing and accounting may be perceived as less socially useful (Dur and Van Lent, 2019;Wolfe and Patel, 2019). Jobs related to healthcare, such as doctors and nurses, have gained greater public interest and recognition due to their roles in the COVID-19 pandemic (Kramer and Kramer, 2020). ...
... Furthermore, are there any differences between jobs and sectors? According to several studies, some jobs, especially for-profit jobs, simply have limited opportunities to contribute to beneficiaries (Dur and Van Lent, 2019;Wolfe and Patel, 2019). How would employees make . ...
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This paper examines the concept of “contributing to society” in the context of meaningful work and calling. While previous studies have identified it as a significant dimension within these concepts, little attention has been paid to trying to conceptualize it. Also, with “self-oriented” fulfillment being an important aspect of the experience of meaningfulness, the understanding of contribution to society might be more complex than being simply an “other-oriented” concept. In response to this conceptual unclarity, we define contributing to society as a belief individuals hold about whether tasks positively impact work beneficiaries. We integrate this with Situated Expectancy-Value Theory (SEVT) to determine the expected task value of such belief. Our argument is that fulfillment of a contribution depends on three factors: (1) the expectation of a contribution based on someone's calling and expected meaningfulness; (2) the extent to which the employee is invested in the task, the costs of such task, whether the beneficiary and impact value and the utility for the self and beneficiary match the preference; (3) the extent to which this contribution is sufficient considering someone's expectation. Therefore, the expected task value can differ between individuals concerning the number and types of beneficiaries and the extent and value of the impact. Moreover, in this way contributions to society should also be perceived from a self-oriented perspective to be fulfilling. This original concept offers a theoretical framework and a research agenda that proposes new avenues of inquiry for calling, meaningful work, contributing to society, and related fields such as job design, and public policy.
... Those "struggling" or "suffering" from daily negative emotions related to workplace are 65%; about one in three (29%) very often or always feels burned out at work, and, finally, one in two (51%) are actively looking for a different job (Gallup, 2023). In another study Dur and van Lent (2019) find that, on a sample of 27,000 workers from 36 different countries, 17% of them report having serious doubts about their jobs having any social utility. When the data is disaggregated, we find that in the public sector the perception of the usefulness of one's job seems to be generally higher than in the private sector (a significant difference of 6% on average). ...
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The significance of meaningful and productive work, and the search for profound meaning within it, is akin to the air we breathe. Its importance is often realized only when it becomes contaminated or depleted. In contemporary societies, there is a growing awareness of the significance of the meaning of work, while simultaneously witnessing mounting mistrust and disillusionment as to the significance and social value of numerous jobs. There is paradoxically an increasing demand for meaningful work, while the supply of such work appears to be gradually decreasing. At present, we are recognizing the importance of this vital component that sustains our well-being as it begins to dwindle. The absence of meaningful work may stem from the nature of the work itself, the organizational environment in which it takes place, the prevailing corporate culture, or even the way in which tasks are defined and managed, which makes it challenging to find a sense of purpose and meaning in what we do. While progress can be made on both fronts, addressing cultural and organizational aspects is a more expedient means of intervention without the need of waiting for structural changes in the global economic and social systems.
... Second, they were asked what informed their work, and how they kept up to date with latest developments in their field. Last, to understand how participants perceive their own work with regards to broader societal issues and to understand how far the assumption of empiricism as dominant in engineering epistemology is appropriate, the team used a well-established question stemming from empirical research on the social value of jobs asking participants to reflect on whether their job roles "make a meaningful contribution to the world" [39,40]. ...
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Industry 4 (I4) was a revolutionary new stage for technological progress in manufacturing which promised a new level of interconnectedness between a diverse range of technologies. Sensors, as a point technology, play an important role in these developments, facilitating human-machine interaction and enabling data collection for system-level technologies. Concerns for human labour working in I4 environments (e.g., health and safety, data generation and extraction) are acknowledged by Industry 5 (I5), an update of I4 which promises greater attention to human-machine relations through a values-driven approach to collaboration and co-design. This article explores how engineering experts integrate values promoted by policy-makers into both their thinking about the human in their work and in their writing. This paper demonstrates a novel interdisciplinary approach in which an awareness of different disciplinary epistemic values associated with humans and work guides a systematic literature review and interpretive coding of practice-focussed engineering papers. Findings demonstrate evidence of an I5 human-centric approach: a high value for employees as "end-users" of innovative systems in manufacturing; and an increase in output addressing human activity in modelling and the technologies available to address this concern. However, epistemic publishing practices show that efforts to increase the effectiveness of manufacturing systems often neglect worker voice.
... 9). Dur and van Lent (2019) find that especially people who work in finance, sales, marketing and public relations perceive their job as socially useless. Paulsen (2014) identifies the phenomenon of unproductive work in an even more literal sense: according to international statistics employees spend on average 1.5 to 3 hours a day on private activities and other kinds of 'empty labour' during their working time. ...
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In this paper we critically assess common perceptions of work to inform current debates on work in ecological economics. Work is usually conceived as (1) a productive activity (2) that satisfies consumer demand, (3) is conducive to health and well-being, and (4) ensures social inclusion and personal development. Drawing on the burgeoning literature of postwork or critiques of work, we argue that work may rather be understood as a biophysically intense, consumption-causing, heteronomous institution with ambivalent health impacts that stabilises societies in environmentally and socially unsustainable ways. Therefore, work should be radically reduced and organised differently so that it is no longer the main mechanism for livelihood provisioning and social inclusion. Based on our fourfold critique of work developed in this paper, we sketch out a postwork research agenda for ecological economics.
... For exampleBryce (2018) uses representative American Time Use Survey data to show that respondents report work to be more meaningful than shopping, socialising, relaxing or engaging in leisure activities, with jobs that offer both personal autonomy and a pro-social impact being rated the most meaningful.. Similarly,Dur & Van Lent (2019) report that 77% of workers surveyed report that having a socially useful job is important or very important for them.Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved. ...
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The links between worker well-being and quit intentions have been well researched. However, the vast majority of extant studies use just one measure, job satisfaction, to proxy for worker well-being as a whole, thus ignoring its documented multidimensionality. This paper examines whether this approach is justified. Using novel survey data, I compare the extent to which alternative well-being indicators (job satisfaction, affect, engagement and the satisfaction of basic psychological needs) individually, and jointly, explain variation in the quit intentions of 994 full-time workers. I find systematic differences in the personal and well-being profiles of workers who intend quitting and those who do not. Furthermore, well-being indicators explain four to nine times more variation in quit intentions than wages and hours combined. The engagement measure performs best, explaining 22.5% of variation in quit intentions. Employing a composite model (job satisfaction + affect + engagement) significantly increases explanatory power. My results suggest that the standard single-item job satisfaction measure may be good enough for organisations who merely wish to identify categories of workers who may be most at risk of quitting. For organisations seeking to develop proactive quit prevention strategies however, supplementing job satisfaction with other indicators such as engagement should increase explanatory power and yield valuable, potentially actionable, insights.
... Consequently, the internal division of labor is unlikely to be optimal and easy to criticize. In recent years, many have argued that the growth of administration has gone too far, such that too many professionals work in jobs that do not contribute to the efficiency of the organization or society (Graeber, 2018;Dur & Van Lent, 2019). ...
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All organizations need to allocate labor to production and administration. In many cases—particularly within the public sector—the optimal allocation is far from obvious. Indeed, vocal concerns have been raised about the administrative burden in several public services, not least in education. We investigate this issue using detailed registry data on all employees at Swedish universities and colleges from 2005 to 2019 and document three stylized facts. First, the group of highly educated administrators has grown rapidly, almost by a factor of seven compared with teachers and researchers. Second, the number of less-educated administrators has stayed flat. Third, the time that teachers and researchers spend on administrative tasks has been roughly constant over time. This indicates that resources have been diverted from teaching and research and raises fears of excessive administrative growth in Swedish higher education.
... Companies also try to attract and retain employees by conveying the importance of their work in a broader context through purpose (Robertson & Cooper, 2010). In Germany, almost 10% of all employees perceive their job as socially useless (Dur & Van Lent, 2019). An organizational purpose is one of the main drivers of employee engagement and thus promises to maximize human potential (Shuck & Rose, 2013). ...
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Many businesses communicate their fundamental reasons for existence, namely, their higher purpose. However, research lacks a critical analysis of these claims based on a systematic framework. Moreover, research has focused on the financial benefits of higher purpose, but not on the financial outcomes of inauthentic higher purposes. We address both voids by identifying the elements of higher purpose, defining inauthentic higher purposes and purpose washing, gathering empirical evidence of purpose washing, and showing a negative association between financial performance and purpose washing. With the inductive qualitative content analysis of the annual reports of Germany's DAX 30 companies, we find that purpose washing follows similar communication patterns as greenwashing. Additionally, we identify two new misleading forms of communication within the purpose washing context, which are not used for greenwashing, namely unlawful conduct and shifting responsibility to consumers. We also find that a higher purpose is financially beneficial, while purpose washing is not. The stocks of companies with a purpose perform better than those without one and purpose washers consistently perform the worst over 18-, 10-, and three-year periods.
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Most normative accounts of meaningful work have focused on the value of autonomy and capability for self-development. Here, I will propose that contribution–having a positive impact on others through one’s work–is another central dimension of meaningful work. Being able to contribute through one’s work should be recognized as one of the key axiological values that work can serve, providing one independent justification for why work is valuable and worth doing. Conversely, I argue that having to do work that has no positive impact, or where one is separated from such impact, is an underrecognized type of alienation. Such alienation as pointlessness can be as harmful as the more recognized types of alienation such as powerlessness. Recognizing contribution as a core dimension of meaningful work is compatible with both subjectivist and objectivist accounts of meaningfulness, but I come to support a mixed view where the subjective sense of contributing must be sufficiently warranted by the facts of the situation. Recognizing the inescapable interest humans have for being able to contribute and engage in work that is not pointless has implications for the duties societies, organizations, and individuals have as regards ensuring that work conducted includes a recognizable positive impact. Along with autonomy and self-development, contribution should thus be seen as an independent axiological value that work can serve, its frustration being associated with a specific type of alienation, and it itself playing a key role in what makes work valuable and meaningful.
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A growing literature indicates that people are increasingly motivated to experience a sense of meaning in their work lives. Little is known, however, about how perceptions of work meaningfulness influence job choice decisions. Although much of the research on job choice has focused on the importance of financial compensation, the subjective meanings attached to a job should also play a role. The current set of studies explored the hypothesis that people are willing to accept lower salaries for more meaningful work. In Study 1, participants reported lower minimum acceptable salaries when comparing jobs that they considered to be personally meaningful with those that they considered to be meaningless. In Study 2, an experimental enhancement of a job’s apparent meaningfulness lowered the minimum acceptable salary that participants required for the position. In two large-scale cross-national samples of full-time employees in 2005 and 2015, Study 3 found that participants who experienced more meaningful work lives were more likely to turn down higher-paying job offers elsewhere. The strength of this effect also increased significantly over this time period. Study 4 replicated these findings in an online sample, such that participants who reported having more meaningful work were less willing to leave their current jobs and organizations for higher paying opportunities. These patterns of results remained significant when controlling for demographic factors and differences in job characteristics.
For some, the world is becoming increasingly complicated in that there are ever greater responsibilities, from selecting health insurance to figuring out how much to save for retirement. Ten years ago, my friend (and Harvard law professor) Cass Sunstein and I published a book called Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness that offered a simple idea. By improving the environment in which people choose—what we call the “choice architecture”—they can make wiser choices without restricting any options. The Global Positioning System (GPS) technology on smartphones is an example. You decide where you want to go, the app offers possible routes, and you are free to decline the advice if you decide to take a detour. Sunstein and I stressed that the goal of a conscientious choice architect is to help people make better choices “as judged by themselves.” But what about activities that are essentially nudging for evil? This “sludge” just mucks things up and makes wise decision-making and prosocial activity more difficult.
This review explores the role of incentives in providing goods and services that have significant social returns not captured in private returns, and where outcomes and performances are not easy to measure. We discuss how the presence of prosocial motivation among agents involved in the provision of these goods and services changes the design of incentives. The review also emphasises how heterogeneous prosocial motivation puts a premium on selection of agents in this context. We also discuss alternative theories of prosocial motivation.
We study how changes in the distribution of occupations have affected the aggregate non-pecuniary costs and benefits of working. The physical toll of work is less now than in 1950, with workers shifting away from occupations in which people report experiencing tiredness and pain. The emotional consequences of the changing occupation distribution vary substantially across demographic groups. Work has become happier and more meaningful for women, but more stressful and less meaningful for men. These changes appear to be concentrated at lower education levels.
Taxation affects the allocation of talented individuals across professions by blunting material incentives and thus magnifying nonpecuniary incentives of pursuing a “calling.” Estimates from the literature suggest that high-paying professions have negative externalities, whereas lowpaying professions have positive externalities. A calibrated model therefore prescribes negative marginal tax rates on middle-class incomes and positive rates on the rich. The welfare gains from implementing such a policy are small and are dwarfed by the gains from profession-specific taxes and subsidies. These results depend crucially on externality estimates and labor substitution patterns across professions, both of which are very uncertain given existing empirical evidence.
To understand altruistic behavior, we must understand the process through which altruism develops and is shaped by the agents' own choices and exogenous factors. We introduce the concept of altruistic capital, which grows with effort devoted to altruistic acts and facilitates future altruism. We illustrate its potential use in the context of banking and conclude by showing that returns to altruistic effort shape the agent's choices and are shaped by external events such as the financial crisis.
Ever since Adam Smith, the central teaching of economics has been that free markets provide us with material well-being, as if by an invisible hand. In Phishing for Phools, Nobel Prize-winning economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller deliver a fundamental challenge to this insight, arguing that markets harm as well as help us. As long as there is profit to be made, sellers will systematically exploit our psychological weaknesses and our ignorance through manipulation and deception. Rather than being essentially benign and always creating the greater good, markets are inherently filled with tricks and traps and will "phish" us as "phools." Phishing for Phools therefore strikes a radically new direction in economics, based on the intuitive idea that markets both give and take away. Akerlof and Shiller bring this idea to life through dozens of stories that show how phishing affects everyone, in almost every walk of life. We spend our money up to the limit, and then worry about how to pay the next month's bills. The financial system soars, then crashes. We are attracted, more than we know, by advertising. Our political system is distorted by money. We pay too much for gym memberships, cars, houses, and credit cards. Drug companies ingeniously market pharmaceuticals that do us little good, and sometimes are downright dangerous. Phishing for Phools explores the central role of manipulation and deception in fascinating detail in each of these areas and many more. It thereby explains a paradox: why, at a time when we are better off than ever before in history, all too many of us are leading lives of quiet desperation. At the same time, the book tells stories of individuals who have stood against economic trickery-and how it can be reduced through greater knowledge, reform, and regulation.
We manipulate workers' perceived meaning of a job in a field experiment and interact meaning of work with both financial and recognition incentives. Results show that workers exert more effort when meaning is high. Money has a positive effect on performance that is independent of meaning. In contrast, meaning and recognition interact negatively. Our results provide new insights into the stability of incentive effects across important work contexts. They also suggest that meaning and worker recognition may operate via the same motivational channel.