A Future of Meaningful Work

Finding meaning through purpose, belonging, transcendence and storytelling James Dunseth

Photo: shutterstock.com/metamorworks

This month’s issue of The Actuary focuses on the future of work. A McKinsey video proposes the future of work “is not humans versus machines—this is humans enabled by machines.” Similarly, Deloitte states: “Re-architecting work will distinguish and elevate your business, your people, their potential, their productivity … you’ll make work better for humans, and humans better at work.”

Clearly, the future of work offers companies an enticing opportunity to establish a more productive workforce that is capable of achieving more. So, it is not surprising that the future of work conversation is often around how to optimize the work, workforce and workplace to the benefit of the organization.

But what about the individual? Is it possible that all that comes with the future of work (e.g., redesigned work, artificial intelligence [AI], diversity, flexibility, reskilling) can lead to a more meaningful work experience for employees? Possibly. A podcast episode with Deloitte’s chief well-being officer Jen Fisher and writer and speaker Emily Esfahani Smith, entitled “Finding Meaning in Meaning,” sheds light on the importance of meaning to the human experience and how people can find meaning through purpose, belonging, transcendence and storytelling. The future of work may better equip people to find meaning along these four paths.

Meaning and Why It’s Important

In the podcast episode, Smith says both happiness and meaning can be a path to well-being, but meaning is deeper and longer lasting. Culture and social media often push people to find happiness through various forms of pleasure and positive emotions. Happiness is achieved by maximizing positive emotions and minimizing negative emotions. However, many people who chase happiness end up feeling unhappy since happiness is a temporary state. Meaning, on the other hand, comes from committing to a life of virtue, achieving individual potential and/or pursuing challenging goals, which may or may not result in happiness during the pursuit. Meaning can be harder to achieve than happiness, but it lasts longer and is a deeper form of well-being.

Smith mentions the neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl when discussing the importance of meaning. According to Smith, Frankl “said that human beings have a need for meaning that is as strong, important and vital to our psychological and emotional health as food, water and shelter are to our physical health.”

While in a concentration camp, Frankl acted as a mentor to other prisoners and found that those who maintained the belief that their lives had meaning were more resilient and felt more inclined to survive. Frankl was able to help other prisoners change their mindsets and realize that something may be expected of them in the future. For one scientist, this was the possibility of finishing a series of science books. For a father, it was the possibility of seeing his son again.

Meaning Through Purpose

Through her research and interviews, Smith found four consistent themes or pathways related to living with meaning. The four pathways are:

  1. Purpose
  2. Belonging
  3. Transcendence
  4. Storytelling

According to Smith, finding meaning through purpose generally involves having a long-term goal or principle that guides an individual’s actions and life choices. The goal or principle should be personally valuable and often involves making a positive contribution to the world. This could be something like helping the homeless, raising children or helping families be financially secure.

Smith highlights a common myth that everyone needs to find their “capital P purpose” by searching long and hard until they find the purpose to guide them for life. Instead, living with purpose is a mindset of connecting elements of life to the big picture. Setting a North Star goal of raising a healthy child or curing a certain disease provides meaning to the otherwise painful experiences of being stuck in traffic on the way to soccer practice or staying at work late to finish testing a drug.

While not always obvious, connecting tasks at work to the broader end goal of the team or organization can help one find purpose in work. The future of work should make this easier. For a valuation actuary, redesigned work might mean that data preparation and running models are executed by a nonactuary (e.g., IT, data scientists). Bringing in more AI in the form of automation or machine learning could reduce the quarter close run time. Either of these changes could shift an actuary’s focus to activities that more directly and clearly support driving profits for shareholders and improving returns for policyholders.

Meaning Through Belonging

Another path to meaning is by developing a sense of belonging through relationships and participation in communities. In the “Finding Meaning in Meaning” podcast episode, Smith notes that belonging is created “where you’re valued for who you are intrinsically and where you value others for who they are.” She also clarifies that it does not necessarily require deep relationships, but it can be in “micro-connections” where both parties are momentarily connected and feel seen and heard by one another.

The future of work can facilitate people making these types of connections through increased diversity and well-designed workspaces—despite the advent of virtual work. As the workforce becomes increasingly diverse, employees are more likely to bring their authentic selves to work, making it easier to experience micro-connections. Well-designed virtual workspaces have the right platforms and technology (e.g., Teams, Viva, Slack, Mesh) to allow employees to interact successfully wherever they are. However, having access to these platforms does not always mean employees will make the connections that create belonging. Encouraging teams to do monthly spotlights—like “Talk” at Stanford Graduate School of Business, where a team member shares their personal story with their teammates—could help expand networks and strengthen bonds.

Meaning Through Transcendence

Smith defines the state of transcendence as experiencing “moments of awe and wonder, where you’re lifted above the hustle and bustle of daily life.” These experiences are influential for two reasons. First, the moment is meaningful in and of itself and grounds people in the present. Examples include experiencing wonder when looking up at the stars, absorbing the brilliance of a piece of art, embedding oneself in nature and participating in a religious ceremony. Second, these moments can influence people’s values. Smith references an experiment performed on Berkeley students where the students were told to go outside and look up at 100-foot-tall eucalyptus trees for a minute. Afterward, these students were more likely to offer help to another person and spend more time helping them than someone from a control group.

Smith suggests that people try to make time in their days for these types of experiences. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the transition to a virtual and hybrid workplace. With this should come increased flexibility that makes it easier to take a moment during the workday to meditate, pray, go for a walk, listen to music, or teleport to the bottom of the ocean or into the metaverse with virtual reality.

Meaning Through Storytelling

Storytelling refers to the story a person tells themselves and others about how they became who they are. Finding meaning through storytelling is about making decisions and altering actions and behavior to better align with the story a person wants to tell. Smith gives an example from the COVID-19 pandemic during the podcast. While many experienced significant loss, some found themselves with an excess of free time. Looking 15 years into the future and thinking about telling the story of how one experienced the pandemic may influence how much time one spends on self-improvement and learning a new skill, like pasta-making, versus re-binge-watching Downton Abbey.

Future of work shifts can aid a person in crafting their story as a larger emphasis is placed on lifelong learning. As jobs change and technology continues to evolve, reskilling becomes important to prepare the workforce for new roles and to keep abreast of technological trends. Well-developed infrastructure around training and reskilling and a culture of adaptability make it easier to personalize one’s career trajectory to align with their story.

James Dunseth, ASA, is an MBA candidate at the Yale School of Management.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.

Copyright © 2022 by the Society of Actuaries, Chicago, Illinois.