In 2021, nearly 50 million people in the United States left their jobs voluntarily, a record for the two decades that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has been collecting data. The shift in how we work over the past few years seems to have spurred us to start focusing more on why we work. It laid bare the disconnection between our aspirations for why we go to work and what we experience and do when we’re there.
“People are simply saying, ‘No, this is not how I want to live my life. I want more out of life, I don’t want to spend half my waking life doing things I don’t want to do in a place where I don’t want to be. There’s got to be more to life than this,’” Barry Schwartz told me recently.
He’s been thinking about why we work for the better part of his career, as a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, where I first met him as a student 15 years ago, and for the past seven years at the Haas School of Business at U.C. Berkeley. For Schwartz, exploring the question “Why do we work?” doesn’t just tell us something about what really gets us out of bed every day (hint: it’s not just the money), but reveals something profound about the power of our theories of human nature.
In 2014, Schwartz articulated these ideas in a TED Talk and in a book, Why We Work. “The point I was trying to make is that this notion that people work for pay, period, is false,” he explained. “But, perhaps more importantly, it could become true if you create workplaces that essentially deprive people of any other satisfaction that might come from work…. You create a workplace where people show up only if they’re getting paid, and then you claim, ‘You see, I told you, the only reason people work is to get paid.’”
In the time since the talk and book, Schwartz had essentially given up as unrealizable the idea that a meaningful shift in work was possible. But the pandemic and the Great Resignation changed that.
Schwartz and I sat down to discuss why. In our conversation, we talk about why workplaces are changing and whether it will last. He offers two ideas for why so many organizations continue to treat their employees as if they’re motivated solely by a paycheck, and how they’re leaving money on the table by doing so. And he explains why we all need to think more about what it is that we’re doing. That, he says, might be what helps us align our aspirations for work with the realities of our workplaces.
“As individuals deciding how to spend our time and energy, it’s a very reasonable question for us to be asking, ‘Is the 40 hours a week that I put into this going to add value to the world?’ And it’s reasonable to ask that of your potential employer, and it’s reasonable for your potential employer to be able to have an answer to that question. That would change the conversation.”
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Evan Nesterak: It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long, but it’s been seven years since Why We Work came out. I know you thought about the ideas contained in the book far before that. What’s been on your mind as you’ve watched our relationship with work change over the past two and a half years?
Barry Schwartz: I’ve been obsessed for almost my entire career, which almost certainly comes from my initial training as a Skinnerian, with the incredibly pinched view that we have of the relation between people and work—like rats pressing levers and pigeons pecking keys, people work for pay. There’s a long, long history of this set of assumptions about why people work that always struck me as false but was so persistent that it was unshakable. The solution to every problem was somehow, “Change the incentives, change the payoff structure, and you’ll get better work, more productive work, more energetic work,” or what have you.
When I wrote the book Why We Work seven years ago, the point I was trying to make is that this notion that people work for pay, period, is false. But, perhaps more importantly, it could become true if you create workplaces that essentially deprive people of any other satisfaction that might come from work.
If you dumb work down, if you routinize work, if you oversupervise work, then why would you show up except to get paid? The division of labor, Adam Smith’s great contribution to our material prosperity, essentially created a work situation where there was no reason to be there except for a paycheck. Was it meaningful? No; you were doing some trivial thing over and over and over again, day after day. Was it challenging? No; the idea was to make the task so damn simple that anyone could do it with five minutes of training. So you create a workplace where people show up only if they’re getting paid, and then you claim, “You see, I told you, the only reason people work is to get paid.”
And I had kind of given up. I thought this was so deeply baked into our consciousness about work, and why people do it, that there was nothing you could do to unseat these views. Teaching as I have now for five or six years at a business school—these are the cream of the crop, these are people who want to do important things—but they’re still locked into this notion that if you want people to do good work for you, you have to make it worth their while. And what that meant was you had to pay them, you had to incentivize them—bonuses, stock options, what have you.
The class I teach at the business school at Berkeley is essentially designed to try to dynamite that idea, so that when they start running organizations, they’ll have a different attitude about what makes work good and what happens when you make work good, how much more productive the workplace is when people actually want to be there every day.
This notion that people work for pay, period, is false. But, perhaps more importantly, it could become true if you create workplaces that essentially deprive people of any other satisfaction that might come from work.
But, as I say, I’d kind of given up. I’d been fighting this battle for half a century, and it had defeated me. Then, all of a sudden COVID comes, and the first thing that happens is we start giving rounds of applause to people who until that moment were invisible. These are all the people we pay no attention to, and now at seven o’clock every night, we open up our windows and we give them a round of applause. That was nice. I didn’t expect it to last. And of course, it hasn’t. As the contention about masks and so on has developed and gotten stronger and stronger in the U.S., all of a sudden people are picking fights with these very same people, abusing the hell out of them, instead of appreciating them.
Then, the Great Resignation starts—people simply deciding, “I don’t want to do this work anymore.” You could have knocked me over with a feather. I think what made that possible was the incredibly generous supplements to people’s incomes that were designed to prevent a complete economic collapse with COVID. So all of a sudden, people who were largely living paycheck to paycheck weren’t anymore. They could take a breath. A lot of them had to stop working, because the work they did required social engagement that was not possible in the early days of COVID.
They were forced to stop working temporarily, they had a decent bank account, and they maybe sat back and said, “What am I doing this for? What do I want out of my life?” And as COVID has waxed and waned, and the economy has to some degree recovered, you have this thing that as far as I can tell nobody has come up with a satisfactory explanation for, which is that people are simply saying, “No, this is not how I want to live my life. I want more out of life. I don’t want to spend half my waking life doing things I don’t want to do in a place where I don’t want to be, there’s got to be more to life than this.” Will this last? I have no idea. But what it’s doing is it’s forcing employers to rethink the conditions of employment.
Unfortunately, for the most part so far, what that has entailed is simply paying people more, rather than actually cracking open the can and looking at what people are doing hour by hour and minute by minute to see whether it’s the sort of thing that people should be doing and want to be doing. But they’re certainly paying people more, they are open to being told by people that they’ll take the job under this set of conditions, but not that set of conditions. It provides an opportunity for transformation of the workplace that I had essentially given up all hope would happen.
I think that the jury is still out about whether this will last. The first real economic downturn—maybe partly as a consequence of what’s going on now, in Ukraine—my suspicion is that if that occurs now, or occurs two years from now, people may revert to the way they were because they need to pay their rent and put food on the table. But at least there’s some reason to hope that there will be a long enough period, spurred by the Great Resignation, that workplace structures and assumptions will change, and the workplace will look different permanently going forward.
I want to start at the end of your book and your talk, which is where you left off just now. Forgive me for quoting your own words back to you. You write in Why We Work that “Human nature is to a significant degree the product of human design. If we design workplaces that permit people to do work they value, we will be designing a human nature that values work. If we design workplaces that permit people to find meaning in their work, we will be designing a human nature that values work.” I know you don’t like grades, given your experiment giving everyone a B, but humor me a little bit. What grade do you think most organizations are earning in their design of human nature through their workplaces right now?
I would give most organizations a failing grade. But the Great Resignation has shaken these organizations up, and it may lead to a different understanding what workplaces should be providing people, how people should be treated in workplaces that will turn out to make workplaces not only more desirable for the people who work in them, but also more productive.
Jeffrey Pfeffer, who is in management at Stanford, wrote a book 20 plus years ago, called The Human Equation. In the book, his argument is that the most important resource that enterprises have is human beings. We know a lot about how to enable people to be productive and make real contributions to the organization’s efforts, and, systematically, workplaces are doing everything wrong. If you look, industry by industry, the workplaces that end up at the top, within an industry, are the workplaces that are most attentive to what people care about in the workplace. You pay better, you spend more time training, you give people more autonomy and independence, you flatten the hierarchy so people have more control over what they do, you trust people—you do all that stuff, and your company is at the top in your industry.
This, of course, leads to this puzzle: If this is the way to be more productive, even if you don’t care about your employees, why are you leaving money on the table by creating workplaces that aren’t like this? It’s really a head scratcher. You’d think somebody would come along and go, “If I design my workplace in that way, I will dominate the industry, because I will get much more out of my employees than the competition does.” And yet, that doesn’t seem to happen. And now maybe it’s starting to happen.
Do you have any ideas about why organizations aren’t doing it?
I have two ideas. One is that we are so in the thrall of this mistaken ideology that we literally suffer from poverty of imagination, when it comes to how the people we supervise should be treated. In other words, we believe what we learned in our Ec. 101 classes, and what we learn every time we pick up the financial section of a newspaper. We have tunnel view. That’s one explanation.
The second explanation is that there’s something self-protective in maintaining this kind of structure in the workplace, because it gives supervisors something to do. There’s a sense in which the supervisors are protecting their positions by treating the people they supervise as people who will not do the job unless they’re being supervised. If you actually had this incredible notion that you could create a workplace where people want to be and want to do the right thing, all of a sudden, a whole bunch of people will be superfluous.
You know, I don’t have any evidence for either of these things. But the whole point of the book Why We Work was to try to introduce the idea that our ideas about what people are like have an incredible hold on not only how we think about human beings, but also how we create structures within which human beings live their lives. It doesn’t surprise me that money is being left on the table.
So organizations are leaving money on the table by not being attuned more to their employees, and you’ve given them a failing grade as designers of the human nature through their workplaces. Why do why do we put up with it? It seems we all know, individually, that we’re not working only for the money, but we accept workplaces that are designed as if we are. Why is that?
Chip Heath did a paper [open-access] years ago that showed this interesting phenomenon where everyone thinks they don’t work for money but everyone else does. So, you and me are the outliers. But the people we’re going to have to hire, they’re just in it for the paycheck. We have to create an incentive structure so that the people we’re going to hire will have a reason to show up every day and work hard. There is a disconnection, and we think of ourselves as the outliers. He showed that 20 or 25 years ago. I think it’s still with us.
What bothered me when I was studying Skinner, half a century ago, is that his view did not seem to capture the behavior of any of the people I knew. All the people who were college professors, they were making very modest salaries, considering all the education that they had, so what was going on? How do we explain their behavior? How do we explain our own behavior? How can I put those animals into box thinking I’m going to find something out that’s fundamentally true, when I know it isn’t even true of me? Somehow, we’ve managed to convince ourselves that our aspirations are uniquely loftier than the aspirations of the people around us. That’s maybe what this Great Resignation is chipping away at.
One thing that I see is the argument about money flipped on its head. Let’s say in an interview for a position at one of the failing grade organizations, someone asks, “What’s the salary of this position?” And the reply is something along the lines of, “At this company, we’re a family and we care about you, it’s not about the money.” They try to use the argument that people should care about working for reasons other than money in order to not actually pay people.
It’s a huge problem, you’re absolutely right. “We’re not in it for the money” is an incredibly inviting way to dominate and exploit and deprive the workforce. You can guilt people into working in under conditions that they shouldn’t be working under by saying this is not about money, it’s not about profit, it’s about serving society.
Imagine working in a meatpacking plant. We all depend on these things all the time, but in COVID it became very salient. Near as I can tell, the working conditions in meatpacking plants are just one small notch above slavery. They’re incredibly dangerous. They’re incredibly exhausting. The speed ups are unbearable; to hear about how fast people have to wield these knives. But you say, “Listen, we are providing a public service, we are feeding the nation. It’s not about money.” And you continue to underpay and overwork these people and try to guilt them into feeling like they shouldn’t be complaining.
So there’s a huge danger in people misusing the language of work as meaningful and fulfilling in order to continue to dominate and exploit. And I’m completely aware of that. But the thing that troubles me is when workers get power (I think 6 percent of the private workforce is now unionized. It’s such a low percentage in the United States that workers just don’t have power. This may also be changing), they use that power almost entirely to improve salary and benefits and not to transform the workplace. It has always struck me that the triumph of the labor movement is also its downfall, because all of the fighting is a on a battlefield that management has essentially created. You very seldom see arguments about what we do in those eight hours. It’s all about what we get for whatever we do in those hours. You might demand two 15-minute breaks a day instead of one, but it’s still not about what you’re doing when you’re working, it’s about what you’re doing when you’re not working. That, it seems to me, has ceded way, way too much ground to the people who run the show. I think that they were pretty happy to have these fights be about wages and benefits rather than about working conditions, because that enabled them to maintain control over the workforce. Here too the Great Resignation may crack open the can and expand people’s imaginations about what they ought to be insisting on.
We’re now hearing about companies going completely work from home or work from anywhere. Do these changes really address the issues that you’re talking about now and the ones you raise in the book? If Adam Smith’s pin factory workers could perform their monotonous tasks at home in their pajamas on their own schedule, it doesn’t really change the nature of the work, it just makes the situation slightly more bearable.
I think that’s right. Especially now, you can mega monitor people even when they’re at home. You can record every keystroke. You know what the hell they’re doing, when they’re surfing the web and when they’re actually working. There’s no question it’s an improvement, because if you can structure when you work, so that the work you do is integrated with the rest of your life, that makes unbearable work bearable. And it’s a huge gain for people who are trying simultaneously to live a life, maintain a family, and what have you.
But it also does not address what is to me the fundamental question, which is, What is it that you’re doing when you’re doing it, no matter where you’re doing it? And if that doesn’t change, then although it is less toxic to be doing it in your pajamas, it’s still toxic.
If you can structure when you work, so that the work you do is integrated with the rest of your life, that makes unbearable work bearable … But it also does not address what is to me the fundamental question, which is, What is it that you’re doing when you’re doing it, no matter where you’re doing it?
It raises other problems that you occasionally see articles about, which is that people who work from home find it harder to separate their work life from the rest of their life. And that’s not a blessing. They don’t necessarily want to integrate what they do at work with everything else, because maybe what they do at work is sort of toxic. But when you’re working from home, when do you stop working?
There’s a cartoon that I sometimes show when I give talks, where one person is saying to another, “I can’t wait to go home, put on my pajamas, climb into bed and work.” The great thing about the digital age is that we can now work anywhere on the planet at any time of the day. I took full advantage of that as an academic. I worked from home a lot. And I worked at odd hours a lot so that I could be a decent father to my children. And it was a blessing.
But finding a way to protect yourself from having that encroach on the rest of your life is not easy. And I think you saw, as this continued, that some of what was attractive about working from home started to have this little bitter edge, because people felt like they were working all the time.
I want to explore this idea that we need to focus more on what it is that we’re doing at work. Imagine we ask ourselves, “Do we really need this thing that I am spending my time doing or creating?” Are you saying that a lot of organizations that exist are pointless or meaningless? If we pull the thread of the question “What are we actually doing when we’re at work?” where does it take us? What is the logical conclusion to that question?
I think I have a somewhat jaundiced view, and certainly a nonrepresentative view. But as somebody once said, if the pinnacle of our achievement as a technological society is being able to send 140-character messages out into the world, we have wasted an enormous amount of time, energy, and resources. I think that organizations’ justification is that they add value to the world. There can be a lot of disagreement about what counts as adding value to the world. You might think Facebook is an enormous value adder to the world, and I might think it’s a frivolous waste of time. And maybe it can start out as one thing and become another thing. There’s room for disagreement. But if we agree that the thing we should be asking ourselves is, “Are we adding value to the world?” then at least we’ve got room for a conversation about what does and what doesn’t add value to the world.
I think the way in which economic assumptions have driven us is that no one judges what adds value to the world, that’s what markets are for. If it doesn’t add value to the world, people won’t buy it. If it does, people will buy it. No one has to sit on some throne deciding what adds value and what doesn’t add value. There’s something appealing about letting the democracy of the market tell us what’s worthwhile and what isn’t. But it’s way too reductive. There are things that add value to the world that people will not pay for, or will not pay an amount that is commensurate with the value that’s added. There needs to be somebody asking the question, “Is the world better off with this or worse off?”
I think that as individuals deciding how to spend our time and energy, it’s reasonable to be asking, “Is the 40 hours a week that I put into this going to add value to the world?” And it’s reasonable to ask that of your potential employer, and it’s reasonable for your potential employer to be able to have an answer to that question. That would change the conversation. I don’t want to be a Puritan and take all pleasure out of people’s lives. But I don’t think it should just be about if people are willing to buy it, then it’s worth providing full stop. There are a lot of things that people are willing to buy that are not worth providing. There are a lot of things that we need that are not being provided. And asking that question is what gets you to show up every day.
As individuals deciding how to spend our time and energy, it’s reasonable to be asking, “Is the 40 hours a week that I put into this going to add value to the world?” And it’s reasonable to ask that of your potential employer, and it’s reasonable for your potential employer to be able to have an answer to that question.
I see this in the MBA students I teach at the Haas Business School at Berkeley. These are privileged people, they’re in an extraordinarily privileged position, and they know it. They’re going to be leading organizations, creating organizations, and the people I teach—it’s an elective—want to be part of organizations that add value to the world. That’s why they’re there. They don’t mind making a lot of money doing it. But their first question is, “Will this add value to the world?” And their second question is, “How can we monetize it?”
Now, they’re in a position of privilege. Not everyone has the luxury to be asking those two questions in that order. These people do. And the reason I teach the course I do is that I hope that when they see that they are asking that question about themselves, they will allow me the possibility that the people they hire will also be asking that question, and then create organizations where people can give good answers to that question.
There’s a little bit of literature suggesting that women care more about this than men, that women want work that matters to a greater degree than men do. Men are still much more driven by wages, salary, and benefits, and less by meaning. As women take a larger and larger role in the workforce, they may simply demand of employers that the employers can provide a satisfactory answer to the question “How does this add value to the world” or else they won’t work for them. Women may put pressure on employers to think differently about what it is they do and what the justification is for their existence.
You mentioned earlier that we’re lacking imagination and we have this warped mental model of work. As you might put it, we’ve inherited bad “idea technology”—ideas that we have about human behavior that then influence how we design our world, including our social institutions like the workplace. What gets us over this psychological hump? How can we get rid of the bad idea technology and replace it with better idea technology?
My touchstone is the philosopher Aristotle. The key idea from Aristotle that has influenced me is the notion that every human activity has its own appropriate ends, its own appropriate goals. The Greek word is telos. The telos of the carpentry is building beautiful and functional structures for people to inhabit. The telos of chess is to be become an excellent chess player. Now, you may make a lot of money as a chess champion—I gather the current world chess champion has found a way to monetize his ability very, very well—but you’re not there to make a lot of money. There are a lot of ways to make a lot of money. There’s only one way to be excellent at chess, and that is by becoming excellent at chess. So if we ask ourselves, “What is the telos of this activity? And to what extent does this particular enterprise achieve that telos?” it seems to me it’s a way of keeping the blinders off.
When Google started, the aim was to provide all of the world’s information to all of the world. Much to my complete astonishment, they pretty much did it. One can ask whether Google in 2022 is still driven by that telos, or whether the effort to monetize which obviously was extremely successful, has deflected Google from that mission.
You have to keep yourself open to the possibility that the things you should be aspiring to in the work that you do are broader than the goals that most of the people who are employing you are dangling in front of you.
It is interesting to me that the one digital entity that has unequivocally remained true to its calling is Wikipedia. And Wikipedia, unlike everything else, is not-for-profit. It is less likely to get distracted by shareholders and deflected from its mission, because it’s not there to make money. And it doesn’t have to make money. It gets contributions from people who think, “This is an incredible asset for the world, and I will contribute not only by editing articles but also by covering some of their overhead.” There’s something really remarkably pristine about how Wikipedia operates in the world, in contrast to virtually every other major technological innovation that I’m aware of.
Facebook got corrupted, Twitter got corrupted, Google got corrupted. Arguably, at least, Google had such a noble mission and achieved it, so the corruption is minor, though there’s a lot of room for discussion about that. But Wikipedia hasn’t. Now what this says to me is that you have to keep yourself open to the possibility that the things you should be aspiring to in the work that you do are broader than the goals that most of the people who are employing you are dangling in front of you.
Academics are, you know, slavishly pursuing the truth, but you can’t do that without institutional support. You need libraries, you need laboratories, you need a salary, you need all kinds of stuff. So the university provides the institutional support. The university needs money. It can’t provide you the support you need unless it gets money. The job of the university is to find a way to get that money while protecting you from all the ways in which you can be corrupted by that money, and some universities are much better at protecting faculty than others. But the whole point of having an administrative structure is to enable people like me to do what we are supposed to be doing. It’s not hard to see how the need for financial resources puts pressure on you to deviate a little bit, and then a little bit more, and then a little bit more from your mission, so that you can actually heat the buildings, pay the rent, and so on and so forth. I don’t want to be a completely unrealistic romantic. We need resources to keep the lights on. But we also need structures that protect the telos of these organizations from being undermined by the very effort to keep the organization’s going. I find Aristotle very, very helpful in this regard.
Disclosure: Barry Schwartz is a member of the Behavioral Scientist’s advisory board.