It is generally agreed that long term, chronic and generational unemployment (where children grow up never seeing an adult get up and go to work) plays a large part in societal disadvantage and dysfunction. It is often trumpeted that if we could only get these people into some sort of work, all those problems would disappear. But does putting someone to work sweeping footpaths or stacking boxes really improve their sense of self? Perhaps for someone who has never held a job, the experience of earning a pay packet would indeed lift their self-esteem. But for those who have in the past experienced challenging and fulfilling work and now find themselves jobless, would any sort of work make them feel the same? I think the employment rate hides another societal issue – that of those employed but for whom work does not hold meaning.
Until very recently I was unemployed and had been for eight months. I voluntarily left a job that was family-friendly, reasonably flexible and, though low-paid, secure. It would seem an odd job to leave but it had little to challenge me and it was difficult to identify what difference I was making to the world.
I have a teaching qualification, long ago gained but never used. Having a background in mathematics and science I was assured by Those In The Know that these were highly sought-after subjects in the local high schools. So I took the gamble, left my job and launched myself into the world of Casual Relief Teaching.
Those In The Know were sadly misinformed. Thus the eight months of unemployment.
What changed? I took another gamble. Friends working in the disability sector had for some time suggested I put my name down at the local school for children with intellectual disabilities, citing a desperate need for relief teachers. I had batted each suggestion away with the sense of dismissive ridiculousness it deserved. If I couldn’t gain employment in my area of expertise, what hope did I have in a sector for which I was woefully unqualified? However, unemployment (and its accompanying feelings of rejection) can give one an incentive to try even the most outrageous career choice.
Fortunately I had the opportunity to enter as a volunteer. It gave me the chance to experience the environment and what would be required with a ‘no harm, no foul’ get out clause.
I loved it.
Yeah, it surprised me too.
I’d made no secret as to my purpose for volunteering and once my stint was over, they were keen to move me into relief teaching. I was to undergo a number of days of induction, getting to know some of the classes. Halfway through my first induction day, I was asked if I was available to work the next day. And they’ve kept asking, so I must be doing something right.
Each day I go in, I feel like I’ve jumped out of an aeroplane without a parachute. I am on a steep learning curve (practically vertical) but I am thriving on the challenge. I feel once again the work I am doing is meaningful, not only because it is challenging and stretching me to my utmost ability limits but mostly because of the children themselves. They inspire me every single day and I highly value the opportunity to offer them the experiences and learning they deserve.
Any job can give you at least some sense of doing something productive with your time. It also conveniently puts food on the table. But a job that makes you feel like you are making a difference in the world is what turns working for a living into working for meaning.
It doesn’t mean you have to be vaccinating orphans in Africa or building shelters for the homeless or even working in special education. Whatever your work is, if it feels like more than just a job, if it gives you pleasure in the knowledge that you are having a positive influence on somebody’s life, it is a work of meaning. Perhaps you are the welcoming, smiling face at your local café, the only one a lonely old lady may see all day. Perhaps you take pride in keeping a school clean and tidy, knowing that you are contributing to a positive learning environment. Perhaps you bring the joy of music to people.
It doesn’t have to be ‘worthy’, it just has to matter.