Crisis? What Crisis?
About Cathedrals and the Importance of Meaningful Work

An Excerpt from Ode Magazine
By Jurriaan Kamp

 

“I’m looking for more passion, more commitment in my work,” the note read. It was from Merel, a young woman I had met four years ago, when she was still a law student. At that time she was one of the organizers of a symposium on happiness for students and business leaders, for which I was invited to speak. The symposium focused on questions such as: “Isn’t happiness the most important goal in life?” and “Shouldn’t our daily work be foremost an instrument in our search for happiness?” Good questions from passionate students standing at the threshold of society. We talked about the importance of ideals and how difficult it is to carry the dreams of your student days into the “real” world. […]

We regularly receive letters, emails and phone calls like Merel’s note at Ode. They seem to be coming in more often, although we don’t count them. Ode is not an employment agency, but people think we can put them in touch with organizations that have a different or innovative approach to business and society. After all, that’s what we write about. And every once in a while we manage to help someone on their individual odyssey by pointing them down a new path.

Merel’s story is illustrative. For at least 20 years the midlife crisis has been a staple of Western work lore; men in their forties start wondering if hard work really is the key to happiness. But it seems midlife crises are becoming early-life crises. More turnover, bigger profits, higher salaries, it turns out, are not ultimately satisfying life goals; especially if they cause more and more stress and leave less and less time for other important -- perhaps the most important -- things in life, like family and friends.

Merel and her fellow searchers want to make their own contribution to something that will make this world a better place. They might be looking for an organization that promotes fair trade between the North and South, or a company that produces ecological products. They no longer consider business as usual -- the introduction of another “new and improved” laundry detergent -- to be a gratifying option. They are looking for a different kind of experience, one that is illustrated by the following parable. In the Middle Ages, a man approached two stonemasons and asked them what they were doing. The first stonemason replied: “I am laying stones.” The other answered: “I am building a cathedral.”

Apparently we’re not building enough cathedrals.

For years I worked for a newspaper, with pleasure. It was wonderful to be able to hold the fruits of your labor in your hands every day. In the evening you saw what you had done in the morning -- and what could be improved the day after. In the early 90s I worked as an editor for the paper’s business section. They were exciting times. The great merger wave of the 1990s was just beginning. Each month a new, larger merger was announced, and each time we had to rise to the challenge of outlining the consequences for the economy and for society. Globalization didn’t yet have the meaning it now has, but a pattern was becoming obvious, and Dutch journalists could see our national frontiers beginning to dissolve.

Nevertheless, I began to lose interest in my work. The ninth merger is less exciting than the first. I began to question the logic of laying off all those workers in the name of shareholder profits. Shouldn’t we be more critical of the economic orthodoxy? But I knew that there was little room for such fundamental questions at a daily newspaper; there, too, the saying “business as usual” applies. I finally decided to branch out into another direction. On a warm summer’s day in 1994 I decided I would start a magazine. Ode was born.

I now realize that I am privileged person. Not only did my life-changing idea come to me, but I was able to make it a reality. Such an idea is worth a cathedral -- or at least a small church. It focuses your energy and enthusiasm on something that gives sense and meaning to your life. Such an idea will never become a nine-to-five job. It becomes more like a child that you care for 24 hours a day.

Making a magazine like Ode is inspiring work. The continual hunt for initiatives and people who point the way to a healthier, happier, and cleaner world is fascinating. But it’s not always easy, or even enjoyable. I have my Sunday mornings trying to balance the books and my sleepless nights worrying about financial problems. Owning a business means dealing with stress. But somehow the stress seems easier to bear. It’s not the same as the frustration people in large organizations experience when they find their initiatives -- their creativity -- run aground on unwilling bosses and colleagues. Even a seemingly menial task like staying late sealing envelopes -- we have no mailroom at Ode -- takes on meaning when you’re building a cathedral.

I speak with a lot of people who are looking for their cathedral. People like Merel, who knows her job at the court isn’t bringing her the gratification she seeks, but who (still) has no idea what truly moves her soul. This lack of meaning is a direct consequence of the economic model that governs our society. Much has changed since the cathedrals were built. In those days, things were made because they were needed. Now, things are made because they have to be sold. This is a fundamental difference. Need spawns commitment and meaning. Just think of the emergency road service mechanic who helps people in distress. And then think of the cashier who scans bar codes all day. For whom? And for how long? How long will it be before supermarket customers start scanning their own purchases?

Make no mistake: somewhere in a drawer at the headquarters of one multinational or another lies a plan for cashier-less supermarkets. Few are the companies that don’t have plans to increase production; to earn more with fewer workers. The essence of our economic model is to make more money. Labor is expensive. Higher expenses mean lower profits. Lesson: keep as few people on the payroll as possible. […]

These days Wal-Mart, with an annual turnover of $220 billion, is hailed as one of the most successful companies in the world. But what does Wal-Mart actually do? It opens superstores near towns and small cities in the United States; it destroys the local retail market. In return its employees earn $8.50 an hour, some $18,000 a year, which is below the official U.S. poverty line for a family with two children and single wage-earner. You can only wonder what sort of fulfillment Wal-Mart brings the small-business owners it has forced out of business and on to its payroll.

As early as 1995, the American historian Paul Kennedy wrote a pointed article on this odd phenomenon. He related the story of British Steel, which in the 1970s was regarded as a sluggish, inefficient state-owned enterprise with hundreds of thousands of employees and 37 plants in England. In 20 years’ time British Steel was transformed into the model of success of the European steel industry: 33 plants were shut down and 85 percent of the workers lost their jobs.

Such stories are now in abundance. Banks close their offices and hang cash dispensers on their walls. Insurance companies have their policies drawn up in India. Kennedy asks a poignant question: Where are the new jobs for all those unemployed people supposed to come from? “My economist friends have no answers, or say: ‘Maybe healthcare?’” But the healthcare sector has also been caught in the drive for financial efficiency -- the drive to do as much as possible with as few workers as possible. […]

Social and sustainable entrepreneurship has been presented as an answer to the Western economy’s fulfillment-deficit. It certainly presents opportunities. I was talking with a friend who had recently given up his job with the multinational Unilever to accept a position with a small firm trading in biological tea and herbs. His new company will never make the front page -- let alone the stock market reports. But my friend told me that he enjoyed his daily work much more now that he is helping people to live healthier lives. […]

This type of sustainable entrepreneurship will gain in momentum. Even in these times of economic setbacks, the annual reports of many companies make no bones about it: sustainability and socially sound entrepreneurship are the new pillars of business. An increasing number of them will develop organic lines and strengthen the ties with neighboring communities, and many people will find it inspiring to become involved with such initiatives.

And yet I believe the prospects of sustainable entrepreneurship are limited. […] Someone now in the business of selling organic food is contributing to the future of clean, sustainable agriculture. That is a meaningful activity. But that activity, too, is trapped in the governing economic model. The economy must continue to grow. New products must continue to be launched. Just as we now are no longer satisfied with one brand of chemical detergent, so will we later need more and more tubes of organic toothpaste. The gratification that results from the marketing of that tube will diminish with each subsequent introduction.

In the end it always comes down to the same thing: how to stimulate consumption, often beyond what is necessary, in order to keep the economy running. […] Recessions are the ultimate result of our present economic model. If the economy must grow each year, growing pains become unavoidable. Companies reach a point where they become too optimistic and invest too much. There is no market for their overproduction. They stop the production flow to induce a cooling-off period. It used to take decades before a country’s economy grew 2 percent, but that has been the average annual growth in the West since World War II. There have been fluctuations in the (agricultural) production, but they were caused by the weather more than anything else. Our ancestors did not live with the stress of vital economic growth, nor with the pain of recession. In the today’s world these are things from which no one can escape.

Nor can Ode. We are blessed with loyal subscribers who don’t turn away from us the minute they hear news about sluggish economic growth and feel pressed to cut down on household expenses. But our income from advertisements is highly sensitive to the economic climate. We are experiencing it again this year. I like to think of Ode as a “product” that stands above the modern economic madness. It would not be in the Ode style if we were to suddenly get an influx of subscribers when times were good. I see those matters as being relatively independent of each other. I hope people get inspiration from reading Ode, and find matters to reflect upon. I don’t want them to see it as a frivolity their higher incomes afford them. But in the past months I have been faced with the frustrations of looming red figures in our company ledgers. I worry about the future of my family and that of my colleagues. Many lives are linked to the ideal that is Ode. I notice how I tend to freeze -- just as other entrepreneurs do. And I feel like a pawn in the very game I was trying to stay out of with Ode. Suddenly I find myself reading the headlines with the latest economic developments. The recession brings me, too, back to square one. In other words: following your heart does not protect you from the whims of the economy.

Is there an answer to recession? Maybe there is. But maybe it lies outside orthodox economic models. The continuous economic growth of the consumer society in the past 100 years has brought tremendous prosperity to the inhabitants of the Western world. That would not have been possible without the production-oriented model of the Industrial Revolution. But the challenges now facing our wealthy societies -- ecological destruction, social alienation, the increasing gap between rich and poor as well as the lack of meaningful work -- are also a direct consequence of the age of industry. […]

As you read this, we are still in a recession. The practical steps that will lead from today’s jobs, which alienate, pollute and do not satisfy, to a future of inspiring work in a permanent “developing country” cannot be taken all at once. Where will the money for the growing world population come from if there is no increase in production? Won’t we need more money if we attribute a different value to services and goods? Is our economy really still growing?

But by starting by asking such questions we are making the future. In any case, it is an attractive prospect to think in terms of -- and to open your mind to -- new opportunities, rather than allow yourself to be paralyzed by fear of recession, of losing your job and of the looming closure of your business. Maybe we are privileged to live in an age not only of great changes, but too also to be able to see the outlines of the result of those changes.

This recession, too, will pass, but the revolution from the age of industrial production to a new episode has been set in motion. The good news is that the crisis above all offers opportunities to all those people who are in search of more sense and meaning in their lives.

Ode Magazine

Jurriaan Kamp is co-founder of the international newsmagazine Ode which has printed the full text of this article. Kamp is the author of a number of books, including Paraview Special Editions Because People Matter: Building an Economy That Works for Everyone. Ode is now available at Barnes & Noble and other bookstores throughout the U.S.

© 2003 Jurriaan Kamp

 

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