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Meaning and the Economics of Science

December 1, 2013

Commentators have often described the current batch of twenty-somethings as narcissistic materialists, and the growing number of university students majoring in business may seem to confirm that. In the United States, more than 20 percent of college students now major in business, up from 13.7 percent in 1970, and more than twice the number of any other field. But an article in today’s New York Times, “Millenial Searchers,” cites a recent study that shows most young people today — so-called millennials — actually want something more than money:

the No. 1 factor that young adults ages 21 to 31 wanted in a successful career was a sense of meaning. Though their managers, according to the study, continue to think that millennials are primarily motivated by money, nearly three-quarters of the young adults surveyed said that “meaningful work was among the three most important factors defining career success.”

Of course, “meaning” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, but a sense of meaning generally involves the feeling that a person’s life has purpose and value for both oneself and others. “People who lead meaningful lives feel connected to others, to work, to a life purpose, and to the world itself.”

Unfortunately, the economy today rewards only certain kinds of meaningful work. In another thoughtful piece in today’s Times, “The Real Humanities Crisis,” Gary Gutting distinguishes among three sources of meaning: material goods, social connections, and cultural development.

Our economic system works well for those who find meaning in economic competition and the material rewards it brings. To a lesser but still significant extent, our system provides meaningful work in service professions (like health and social work) for those fulfilled by helping people in great need. But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic system has almost nothing to offer.

If you’re a young person who wants to get rich or help those in need, you can probably find a job. But if you want to be an artist, writer, philosopher, historian, or cultural critic — if you want to be part of the humanities — you have a long row to hoe. The extremely talented and very lucky can do well for themselves, but the vast majority of cultural workers find the economic deck stacked against them. Gutting writes,

We are rightly concerned about the plight of the economic middle class . . . But we have paid scant attention to the cultural middle class, those with strong humanist interests and abilities who can’t reach the very highest levels, which provide almost all the cultural rewards of meaningful work.

Many cultural workers struggle to get by with adjunct teaching appointments, and one promising avenue for reform appears in efforts to improve the working conditions of contingent faculty. As Gutting writes, “If adjuncts don’t meet the standards to be part of the regular faculty, they shouldn’t be hired. If they do, they should be treated the same.”

Another reform that Gutting mentions would be to give the humanities some of the public funding that currently goes to college and professional sports, which in the United States enjoy enormous government largesse.

The online journal Spontaneous Generations recently published an issue on “Economic Aspects of Science” that addresses many of these dilemmas. It includes a piece of mine on “Public University Funding and the Privatization of Politics.”

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