What is meaningful work? - 5 Questions with Prof. Michaelson

As the 2012 Opus College of Business graduates get ready to enter or re-enter the workforce or re-energize their workplace, we wanted to share a Q&A with Christopher Michaelson, Ph.D., assistant professor in the ethics and business law department, about his research on meaningful work.

Q. What do you mean by "meaningful work"?

A. Meaningful work refers not only to work that is meaningful to the worker but that also contributes meaningfully to general well-being. Most people intuitively have an idea of what meaningful work is and whether they consider their own work to be meaningful. There is a lot of excellent research on why people do the kinds of work they do and what they think about it. However, comparatively few people consider why they ought to do the work they do in a moral sense. My research examines the morality of meaningful work, including whether we have a moral obligation to perform and/or provide it.

Q. Why is this topic of interest to you?

A. Some of the influential people in my life had relatively clear ideas about what kinds of work were morally acceptable for me to pursue. Sometimes, I joke that I became the wrong kind of doctor. My mother, a teacher, would really have liked me to have been a medical doctor for a meaningful reason: Doctors help others, and in doing so make the world better. There are good reasons why doctors are generally held in high esteem. The fact that the market often compensates them well seems an appropriate reward for their efforts. Similarly, teachers help others improve our world, but they are often not as well-compensated. In my career as a teacher of business students and as a business person, I have tried to encourage my students and business organizations to consider ways in which business can and does enhance well-being. I promote exploration of how the market can or should reward such efforts.

Opus College of Business Ethics and Business Law professor Christopher Michaelson

Q. What are you hoping to accomplish with this research?

A. This month, millions of American students will leave colleges and universities for the workforce. In other countries, what has been referred to as the largest migration in human history is occurring as workers leave their rural homes for urban manufacturing centers. What they all have in common is the search for a better life. However, while some of them have a degree of control over the work they choose to pursue that life, others are comparatively powerless to decide for themselves. By encouraging examination of meaningful work, I hope to support decisions made by individuals to perform meaningful work, to support the capacity of companies to provide meaningful work for their employees and to influence values cultivated within societies that prioritize long-term meaningfulness over short-term material rewards.

Q. Will this research impact your teaching at St. Thomas?

A. As a professor, I consider my responsibility to be not only to help students cultivate the skills necessary to lead a good life but also to cultivate examination of what is the good life. Most of my students will spend the majority of their waking hours working, so if they want to lead a good life, they will either have to squeeze it into a few hours after work or, hopefully, find meaningful work.

Q. What was the most surprising finding from this project?

A. I suppose after several years of talking with people about meaningful work, it should no longer surprise me to meet people for whom meaningful work is not seemingly a high priority. However, it does continue to surprise me. Usually what I find is that there are competing pressures preventing them from seeking meaningful work. Those pressures will continue to hold sway if we don’t, as a society and species, continue to examine and refine our values that determine why we do what we do.