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.

Environmental considerations

To give one example, how can we find meaning in our work if it conflicts with the climate crisis? Last May, during a graduation ceremony , students of the French engineering school AgroParisTech invited their classmates to “desert” the industry for which they had just been trained. A month and a half after it was posted online, a video of their intervention had nearly 100,000 views. These “bifurcators” were soon followed by engineers from other prestigious schools in France, such as the highly selective École Polytechnique, which trains the country’s elites. These engineers have loudly proclaimed their refusal to contribute to an economic machine deemed incompatible with the preservation of the planet. Though it may be merely anecdotal in terms of the number of students involved, this new declaration of priorities has found a large echo in the press and in public debates in France, in the midst of the health crisis.

Of course, this awareness goes back to well before the pandemic, and has risen among high school students in many countries, with regular well-attended demonstrations, following the call of young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg in 2018 and her Fridays for Future movement. In France, since 2018, some 30,000 students have signed the Student Manifesto for an Ecological Awakening, the objective of which is to help “transform our training and choose our future job” by mobilising schools and universities “to better educate themselves on ecological issues and help young graduates choose an employer who is sufficiently committed to ecological transition”. In short, a wake up call for employers.

In the latest available Working Conditions survey, conducted in 2019 by Dares, the statistical service of the French Ministry of Labor, seven percent of employees answered yes to the question “Does my work always or often harm the environment?” “It’s not much, but we have every reason to believe that this figure will increase as people become more aware of the impact of their work on the environment,” says Coralie Perez. “It should be noted that young people are a little more likely to declare this, but this is because they are more frequently assigned to dirty jobs, degrading tasks, involving the use of toxic products.” In their latest research, Perez and Coutrot establish a link between feeling that our work harms the environment and feeling our job is less bearable. “The same people also declare that they probably won’t be able to hold their job until the end of their professional life, and that they also aspire to branch out, to change jobs,” says Coutrot.

In other European countries too, environmental values are increasingly becoming a marker of a job’s value. “Many young people in the Netherlands are primarily concerned with the value of their work,” reports Pieter Gautier, a Dutch researcher at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. “As in France and other European countries, many want to work in the green sector or work with sustainable energy, and no longer for fossil industries. They are willing to accept a lower salary if they do something more useful. There are no statistics on this phenomenon yet, but all the information I get from companies indicates that they do not have a problem recruiting for jobs in the renewable sector, especially young graduates, because this is the type of job they are looking for first,” he says.

For Thomas Coutrot, the loss of meaning at work felt by many French people is a consequence of management by numbers. “Driven by the large consulting firms that advise and implement management systems in companies and administrations, these methods of prescription, control and reporting – ‘processes’ in managerial language – invade every activity, including services and the civil service. They are superimposed on real and effective labour inputs. Because the databases have to be fed, contributing to the intensification of work and, above all, to the loss of meaning,” explains the economist. “Numerical indicators and standardisation of work mean that employees no longer recognize themselves in what they are asked to do.

Finally, the health crisis occurred in a context of deteriorating quality of life at work, with deleterious effects on health observed in all European countries. The latest French survey on “Experiencing work during the Covid-19 crisis” (Tracov , Dares), published in December 2022, highlighted “notable deterioration in the health status of the employed population during the crisis”. But when the Covid crisis struck, the European population was already weakened by years of deteriorating working conditions, as measured by the latest series of Eurofound surveys. It shows that a significant proportion of European workers are suffering from health problems: 23 percent of respondents report exhaustion; 20 precent report chronic illness; 13 percent are affected by combined physical and emotional exhaustion; and nearly a quarter of European workers are at risk of depression.

“Essential workers”

The symbolic celebration of “essential workers” during the covid crisis in most European countries has also helped to give visibility to the poor working conditions on the so-called “frontline”, led by medical professionals. The central role of all “second line” workers who kept economies running during the pandemic has also been rediscovered. A survey by CEET (an employment research centre) from May 2021 notes that before the health crisis, these workers – gathering around 17 professions in France – certainly had “heterogeneous employment and working conditions, but generally shared significantly less favourable conditions than those of the average private employee. They are twice as often on fixed-term or temporary contracts, with short working weeks, receive 30 percent lower salaries, are more likely to be unemployed and have few career opportunities”. Even though their working conditions are difficult, these second-line workers report a strong sense of usefulness, which is particularly high among home helps and housekeepers (91 percent) and higher than the private sector employee average among vegetable growers, gardeners, construction workers, drivers, butchers, butchers, bakers and maintenance workers.

Unfortunately, working conditions for these essential workers have not improved since then, or only marginally. There have only been rare wage increases, such as in the Netherlands, in France following the Segur healthcare reform, and in Germany. “In Germany, essential workers have not yet obtained better working conditions, with the exception of some health care workers who have negotiated wage increases of up to 20 per cent,” explains Gustav Horn, an economist and economic adviser to the SPD. In Slovenia, many public healthcare workers are still paid below the legal minimum wage. Despite promises, working conditions remain extremely poor. Protests have been held by nurses and doctors in Italy and Spain, driven by salary concerns, working hours and workloads, as well as severe understaffing, with little positive outcome.

Ranking the professions in the Dares survey, “in the list of professions that have meaning, we find nursery assistants, home helps, trainers and teachers. The important thing to remember is that these are not all qualified professions,” points out Coralie Perez. “The second important result is that the most meaningful occupations are often those in which employees are in contact with the public, particularly care professions, despite the difficult working conditions. But nurses are not among the fifteen professions that find the most meaning in their work: “For despite their very strong sense of social utility, they are subject to working conditions that undermine ethical consistency and their ability to be able to do their jobs well. This data predates the pandemic, but we have no reason to believe that the trend has reversed since then, quite the contrary,” she says.

It is therefore not enough to have a job that has meaning to feel socially useful. It is also necessary to receive recognition, to be well paid, and to benefit from good working conditions. It is also necessary to be able to work “while being consistent with one’s professional and moral values. For caregivers, this means being able to take care of patients without having to ‘mistreat’ them, without being put in a position where their job has to be done poorly, which causes a lot of suffering,” adds Coralie Perez.

“Hospital caregivers are also in the front line when it comes to the aberrations of management by numbers”, says Coutrot. Such aberrations include the famous fee-per-service model which “pushes managers to provide the most profitable services in order to optimise hospital financing, to the detriment of lesser-rated and therefore less profitable services, regardless of the ethics of care. All this completely distorts the activity of professionals, and leads them into ethical conflicts, by privileging certain services to the detriment of others”.

As a result, if “quiet suffering” has characterised these care professions for years, the situation is changing. The chain of resignations and recruitment difficulties that characterise this sector today indicate that fewer and fewer people are willing to do the intolerable work.

It remains to be seen how employers will react to this new reality of the French relationship to work. “For the moment, they have not given up on the current organisational methods and management by numbers. The vast majority prefer to ask the government to tighten the conditions for receiving unemployment benefits, to increase pressure on employees to accept their jobs, or else to resort to immigration,” continues Coutrot, pointing to the consequences of the incessant reorganisations that punctuate the life of large companies. “According to health insurance figures, in 2019, 108,000 psychological illnesses were caused by work, of which less than a third were recognized (28,500 work-related accidents and 1,600 occupational diseases). A recent Dares study on the sustainability of work has shown that this depends strongly on physical hardship, but also on the level of autonomy granted to employees, as well as their participation in organisational decisions that impact their work. There is therefore room for a public policy aimed at providing employees and their representatives with new rights to increase their ability to be more involved in their work.”

Although it is too early to say that the change in the balance of power between employers and employees will be lasting – enough to modify the organisation of work – the new demands of workers are reshuffling the cards in these times of labour shortage. For the time being, “people no longer submit to dirty work”, concludes Dominique Lhuilier. And she warns: “But every effort must be made to prevent the increased individualization of the relationship to work, that decoupling that hangs over us. The transformations of work – intensification, casualization, individualization – have weakened organised labour, and labour is intolerable without organisation. The meaning of work is not prescribed: it is a collective construction. Managers are realising that a work collective cannot be built in two weeks, that it is essential to the quality of work, to life at work, and to the meaning of work.” Recognising this is already a small revolution.

  1. Réinventer le travail , éd. PUF, 2013.
  2. Coralie Perez is a research engineer at Université Paris-1, and is co-author of Restoring Weaning to Work, with Thomas Coutrot, Le Seuil, 2022.
  3. Thomas Coutrot is a former head of the Working Conditions and Health department at Dares, part of the Labour Ministry (2003-2022) and co-author of Restoring Meaning to Work, with Coralie Perez, Le Seuil, 2022.
  4. Dominique Lhuilier is Professor Emeritus at the Research Center for Work and Development (CNAM).+

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