Vocation: A Cure for Burnout

October 17, 2023

Do improvements in artificial intelligence make the remaining work better for humans or worse? Adam Smith and Karl Marx never wrote about AI but they understood plenty about how changes in work could cause torpor and alienation. 
In a recent article for The Atlantic, former AEI president Arthur Brooks makes the case that to prevent burnout at work we need to create “meaningful boundaries” between work and the rest of our lives. As usual, Brooks has excellent advice about how to navigate life’s trenches and stay motivated and happy. Yet there is one piece missing: encouraging reflection on what drives us, what makes us tick, and how our work connects to personal meaning–because applying our time and energy toward a task   we love is perhaps the best insurance against burnout.

Philosophers have long recognized the role of meaningful work in sustaining healthy people and communities. Perhaps the earliest example of this tradition is the theological concept of vocation. From the Latin vocatio (verb: vocare), the word connotes a “calling.” In early Christianity, monks, nuns, and priests pursued vocations–because they believed God called them to prayer, contemplation, and service to the world. By the time of the Protestant Reformation, the term took on a broader meaning within Christianity, applying to almost any kind of labor so long as it was done with a sense of duty and in effort to serve one’s neighbors. We are the inheritors of these traditions that have taken on special importance among work-fixated Americans.

Given the importance Western culture has placed on the idea of vocational calling, it is surprising and a bit alarming how little thought we give to it when we are considering our educations and careers. Our attention and energy go mostly to dollars and cents rather than meaning and purpose. Both are important, of course, but giving too much attention to the former risks short-changing the latter. Making career decisions that are merely practical–and not informed by our deepest interests–is the fast-track to early burnout. 

Two thinkers who shed important light on issues relating to work and well-being are Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Though these two giants of economics came to the issue from diametrically opposed views on market capitalism, both developed views that highlighted the importance of meaningful work to human well-being. Both thinkers lament what results–Smith calls it “torpor” and Marx calls it “alienation” or “estranged labor”–when human beings work solely for survival without having a deeper connection to what they are creating through their work.

As these two “fathers”–one of capitalism and the other of socialism–recognize, work has a meaning beyond the material fruits it produces–a meaning that can only be described as spiritual, whether spirituality is formally recognized or not. Even under the pressures of automation, consumerism, and growing secularization, humans continue to believe that work can and does provide forms of transcendent meaning that satisfies profound needs in our personalities and spirits.
As we enter into the era of AI-driven automation, vocational thinking is likely to reassert itself in a number of interesting ways. First, this round of automation, unlike every other since the dawn of the industrial revolution, seems to be taking aim not at manual labor but at higher-level cognitive tasks. Early research points toward bigger AI impacts among knowledge workers. Is the Hollywood writers’ strike, which nominally focused on AI issues, a one-off or a harbinger of future workforce turmoil among educated knowledge-sector workers? 
From the perspectives of Marx and Smith, cognitive automation might afford some advantages. A lot of cognitive labor (think of professions like accounting) can be repetitive, “torpor”-inducing, and “alienating.” If we have “robots for the mind” that can relieve human beings from stultifying mental labor, we should welcome that every bit as much as the robots that have relieved people of back-breaking, life-shortening industrial jobs. By taking on more repetitive tasks, it may free workers to focus on those job activities that require broad-spectrum human intelligence and creativity–which tend to be more fulfilling, energizing, and more compatible with our desire for dignity in work. Smith and Marx were both concerned with how capitalism would impact the human worker. It would be a high irony if the end result of the division of labor that has brought us to this stage of economic and technological development helped to solve the problems of work and meaning the division of labor itself created.
There’s a hitch to all of this, because, well, that’s the nature of reality. Every new benefit comes with a price tag. Human beings evolved under circumstances of scarcity and danger. We are built for struggle; resistance helps generate meaning and build strength. If AI makes us freer and more prosperous, it will not relieve us of our deeply felt and experienced need for meaning. The parts of us that yearn for purpose, to make a difference, will never be automated away. Instead, we will likely face a new challenge: configuring our lives to generate the psychic income that can sustain us psychologically and spiritually. The idea of “passion” or “calling” in work are often regarded as luxury goods for over-educated elites. It’s time for us to take it seriously and every bit as important to our thriving as the paychecks our jobs provide.

Want to read more?
Janet Bufton and Christy Lynn's What would Adam Smith think about "vocations"? Part 1 & Part 2
Sarah Skwire's What Would Adam Smith Think of My Weekend? and Work, with a Side of Yarn
Elizabeth M. Hull's Adam Smith and Silas Marner: Heaps of Gold
Dear Adam Smith: An Antidote To Torpor