Outside Consultant: What Is the Meaning of Work?

This “Outside Consultant” column by John F. McVea, an associate professor in the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship at the Opus College of Business, ran in the Star Tribune on June 28, 2021.

In times of social upheaval, we often debate the meaning of work. Economists tell us that it is the maximization of profit, technocrats tell us it is technological progress. In the shadow of COVID and of the murder of George Floyd, most of us find these responses dispiriting and simplistic at best. We need to challenge how we talk about the meaning of work and of leisure.

There’s a proverbial story that we work to earn a living and use leisure to escape the toil of that work. Work is defined as unpleasant, revolving around efficiency, competition and survival. To recover this daily grind, leisure is seen as frivolous distraction: an escape from life. Drudgery and escapism in equal measure makes for a dispiriting idea of the good life.

A contrary example can help snap us out of this paradigm. Finley’s, the dog treats and biscuits company co-founded by former special education teachers Angie and Kyle Gallus, has transformed the lives of the employees with disabilities and enriched the purpose of the lives of the owners. People who are excluded from our workforce have few opportunities to grow. Without this it’s hard for us to think and reflect on ourselves and as citizens – being fully human and flourishing.

Work at Finley’s has transformed employees’ feelings about their own value. Leisure for the owners, rather than an escape from drudgery, has allowed them to reflect on enriching questions like, “Could these jobs allow others to stretch and grow?” and “Of what are others capable?”

Finley’s story draws on an older, more substantial story about work based on the subjective dimension of work. Just as we change the world through our work, so those activities actually change us. From this perspective, work is really about transformation. It is eight hours which can shape how we think and who we become. Equally, rather than a frivolous distraction, leisure is an opportunity to reflect on the importance of the things on which we work. Rather than drudgery and distraction we should think of work and leisure as growth and reflection. This approach echoes old-fashioned ideas like careers of conviction and the fact that work and leisure can work hand in glove.

John F. McVea is an associate professor in the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.