Does work still have meaning?

The climate and Covid crises have led more and more workers - especially younger ones - to question the meaning of their work, resulting in "quiet quitting" and loss of motivation.

Published On: March 27th, 2023

Fatigue, loss of motivation, “generalised weakness”… In France, debate is raging, amid social unrest over proposed pension reforms: according to a recent opinion poll, the covid epidemic has given way to a “laziness epidemic”. With the shock of covid and new habits acquired during lockdown, the relationship between effort and work could hardly have remained the same. According to the study , published on 11 November by the Jean Jaurès Foundation in collaboration with the IFOP polling firm, physical and psychological fatigue has “spread to a whole section of society” and 45 percent of French people say that they are “regularly affected by an epidemic of laziness that discourages them from leaving their homes”.

“A large minority has clearly lost motivation,” write the two authors, Jérôme Fourquet and Jérémie Peltier. They argue that the wave of resignations in France “says a lot about the acceleration of change in the French relationship to work, with the health crisis boosting a trend that was already in motion. While the majority of working people, 51 percent, say their motivation has remained unchanged, 37 percent say they are “less motivated than before in their work”. In 1990, 60 percent of respondents answered that work was “very important” in their lives. Today only “24 percent give this answer, a spectacular fall of 36 points in thirty years”. In 2008, “62 percent of employees wanted, if they had the choice, to ‘earn more money but have less free time’ compared to 38 percent who wanted to ‘earn less money to have more free time’. Now, “the balance of power between these two modalities is completely reversed”.

Loss of motivation at work affects one in three French people, with “the same intensity in all social classes”, but more particularly young people. “Generally speaking, a part of the working population, and particularly the youngest, have gradually disengaged from their work, as if they had entered a form of silent, passive resistance,” the study concludes. This has fueled debate on “quiet quitting” – doing as little as possible at work without getting fired – a term coined in July 2022 on TikTok, and which has circulated on social networks ever since.

A major crisis at work

Does this mean that employees have genuinely disengaged from work? It is clear that lockdowns affected the way Europeans view work. Teleworking changed their habits: they took a step back, asking themselves if their work is useful. They have also become aware of the grip  that work has over their lives, and the sometimes unbearable nature of certain working conditions,” comments Dominique Méda, a French sociologist and professor at IRISSO at the University of Paris-Dauphine. “This is not so much a break as an accentuation of previous trends. Already in 1999, when they were among the most numerous in Europe to declare that work was very important, the French wished in the same proportions that work would occupy less space in their lives. This is why, in our work, we don’t talk of the centrality of work but of a polycentrism of values, which is increasingly pronounced as working conditions worsen and aspirations for a better work-life balance develop. But that’s not at all to say that the French are disengaged,” argues the sociologist.

Along with three other researchers (Patricia Vendramin, Lucie Davoine and Béatrice Delay), Dominique Méda has used the European Values Study (EVS) to understand the French relationship with work (1). The results from 1990, 1999, 2008 and 2017 show that the French are among the most numerous to attach importance to work, with 60 percent of respondents stating in 1990 that work is very important; 70 percent in 1999; 67 percent in 2008 and 62 percent in 2018. This is true regardless of status (student, retired, homemaker, full-time and part-time workers). “But we will have to wait for the next EVS survey, carried out under the same conditions, with the same sample size and the same methods, to be able to measure the impact of the health crisis on each country. And for solid results, the shock of the health crisis must have truly passed”, says Méda.

“There is a serious work crisis in France”, she says. “For a very long time, working conditions have been deteriorating in France, due to hyper-productivism, as confirmed by all surveys. The recovery is creating new opportunities to leave a job that has become unbearable and to find another, with a better chance of reconciling professional and personal life. In any case, it is far too early to say that work has suddenly lost its importance.” According to Méda, the French, especially younger people, still place “high expectations” for work.

“The pandemic has definitely sharpened questions that were present before, because it confronted us with our vulnerability, as individuals but also as a collective,” explains Coralie Perez, a French socio-economist (2). “Are we really producing what we need? What are the impacts of our work on nature? This time of reflection and, for many, putting activities on hold, placed things in perspective and led us to question our relationship with work.”

In search of jobs with real meaning

For Thomas Coutrot, French statistician and economist, (3) “working conditions that were once tolerated are becoming unacceptable for many employees. It’s not so much that people want to leave the job or the workforce, or stop working, it’s that they are looking for jobs with better conditions, with real meaning to the work,” he says. “So there’s been a shift in aspirations and it’s getting harder and harder for employers to fill certain kinds of jobs or organisations.”

“The question of the meaning of work is very closely linked to that of values,” states French work psychologist Dominique Lhuilier (4). “It raises new questions, while giving new meaning to the old formula: ‘how to make a living without wasting your life?’ Neither remuneration alone, nor promotion opportunities – which are becoming more and more rare with increasing flexibility and precarity – are obvious answers.”

This questioning of the meaning of work perturbs young people especially. “As the first lockdown began, they had just begun building their bridges to the adult world. Their momentum was cut short. From a psychological point of view, the covid crisis had the effect of a biographical rupture, where routines were brutally interrupted, and projects were suspended. Not only did young people have to make it through their exams and training, while questioning the very value of their qualifications, they also realised that the jobs they were aiming for were often too detached from their values. Younger people in specialised courses are particularly doubtful about the meaning of their future employment. The question of ‘what for?’ has become very pointed, much more than before,” confirms the psychologist