There’s a story about three men hauling stones that the artist Ben Shahn famously retells in his 1957 book, “The Shape of Content.” The story goes like this: As the men are toiling, a nameless passerby asks each of the three “in what work they were engaged.” As Shahn tells it, the three men each give three very different replies:
“The first said, ‘I toil from sunup to sundown and all I receive for my pains is a few francs a day.’
“The second said, ‘I’m glad enough to wheel this wheelbarrow for I have been out of work for many months and I have a family to support.’
“The third said, ‘I am building Chartres Cathedral.’”
The third man, Shahn intended his readers to understand, was not a laborer but an artist — someone whose self-image and engagement in his work comes from a vision of a larger purpose.
Should work be synonymous with our identities? Should it give us our sense of purpose? We get to know each other with the ubiquitous question, “So what do you do for work?” and the answer has become a dangerous proxy for our identity.
For generations, we’ve asked workers to approach their jobs the way the first two laborers did — as a source of livelihood, a series of actions and a paycheck, at best. Over the past hundred years, we have grown used to a fixed occupational identity, where what we do has become who we are.
In earlier decades — decades in which many current workers were raised — people could expect to live middle-class lives, with mostly unchanging blue- and white-collar jobs. They were happy to have work, used their wages to buy houses and establish families, and saved their passions and sense of purpose for their off-hours. But those jobs are mostly gone, and with them our way of working has changed.
According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “In 1970, blue-collar jobs were 31.2% of total nonfarm employment. By 2016, their share had fallen to 13.6% of total employment.”
As salaries have failed to keep up with inflation, new entries into the workforce often find themselves forced to work several unrelated jobs. They remain unable to afford families, houses or hobbies, and wonder if such grueling work is worthwhile.
About a third of today’s workforce is involved in the gig economy, in which freelancers and part-time contractors work job-to-job with little security and few employment rights. Some are self-employed, while others work gigs on the side.
It’s a trend that’s growing: A 2018 NPR/Marist poll predicted that contract workers and freelancers could make up half the workforce within the decade. But even as more people derive their income from the gig economy, they still make less than their peers in traditional jobs, according to a Deloitte analysis of more than 10 years’ worth of survey data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Companies can save up to 30% by hiring contract workers and, as evolving technology replaces the need for human workers, more full-time jobs are likely to become part-time ones.
Given the trends, it’s no surprise if many of today’s workers — including older people who are working later and longer than previous generations — identify with the first laborer in Shahn’s story, the one who sees himself as performing backbreaking work for meager pay.
Meanwhile, the question, “What do you do?” is becoming less meaningful to Gen Zers, typically defined as those born between 1997–2017, who aren’t inclined to define themselves based on a single occupation. Born into the gig economy, they may expect to have many different jobs throughout their lives.
All of this means that the culture of work has to change to compensate. Work must, simply, become more meaningful — more purpose-driven — and harness uniquely human creativity. According to Ramsey Alwin, Director of Financial Resilience Thought Leadership at AARP, it will become increasingly important for humans to do what humans do best: learn, adapt, and make meaning.
Why do gig workers need meaning? It might seem like all the power is in the employers’ hands — after all, gig workers can always be easily replaced. But for employers, this reductive approach can create negative consequences for their businesses. As the co-founder of WeGoLook, a gig economy platform for enterprise customers, Robin Smith has noted that companies like hers can quickly sink if they become known as bad employers. “One gig worker’s negative experience with your company may not seem to matter, but negative news travels fast. Especially online!” she wrote.
The more companies rely on part-time contractors, the more important these workers will become. Being able to attract a diverse, capable group of freelancers — and retain them — will remain a goal for businesses. According to Heather McGowan, Global Futurist and founder of Work to Learn, “we will work in not one or two jobs in our careers but ten or more across multiple industries, [so] we cannot define ourselves by what we do; rather, we must connect to the motivation that comes from purpose.”
If companies want to inspire these workers, they’ll have to make them feel like they’re contributing to something bigger than themselves. There’s already evidence that this is what freelancers value: A 2016 report by IBM’s Smarter Workforce Institute surveyed over 33,000 contract workers from 26 different countries and found that compared to their full-time colleagues, they tended to be more engaged, more innovative and creative.
At the time, Great Place to Work Institute — an employment think tank that produces Fortune’s annual 100 Best Companies to Work For list — concluded that to build trust with contract employees, companies needed to inspire them. “Build a sense of inspiration by sharing the mission and vision of your organization with independent employees, so they understand how their efforts help drive a greater purpose,” the researchers wrote.
Robin Smith agreed: “Purpose is more important than pay in retaining millennial employees,” she wrote on the WeGoWork blog. “Companies must now consider the intrinsic motivation when hiring employees. A gig worker who holds a shared purpose with your organization is more likely to stay and feel connected to the group.”
According to Alwin, “We need to help people build resilient and adaptive identities grounded in and fueled by their purpose, passions, and creativity.”
In short, companies have to make it clear to employees of all generations — both full-time and part-time — that they aren’t like the first two laborers in Shahn’s analogy.
They’re not just hauling rocks. They’re building cathedrals.
Update: This article was updated to clarify quote attribution on January 23.