How important is it to have work that you find fulfilling? And what would you do — or sacrifice — to get it?
In a world where nearly everyone works for a living, Aruna Ranganathan explores the many facets of labor: the satisfaction it can bring, how it affects the economic decisions we make, and our emotional attachment to what we do. An associate professor of organizational behavior at Stanford GSB, Ranganathan is creating research with low-income workers in India that’s breaking new ground in the study of the ways people identify with their work. Her findings — the idea that work can be inherently enjoyable and a source of fulfillment — may change the way we think about earning a living.
An Early Education
Ranganathan spent an international childhood in India, the Middle East, and Singapore, and traces her interest in labor to one autumn when she was a middle-schooler in New Delhi. It was the season of Diwali, the festival of lights, and she had just learned that the fireworks factory near her school employed children.
“Here I was at age 12 or 13 going to school and enjoying learning, while nearby there were children my age leading very different lives, who spent the whole day working. I think it was the first time I thought about what it meant to work,” she recalls. “They were doing it because of economic need — they all came from poor families — but it also shaped their lives, and I thought it might influence how they looked at the world.”
Soon after, as a high schooler in Singapore, she undertook a project studying child labor in the carpet factories of Nepal, eventually spending a week with an organization that rescued children from exploitive conditions.
“I met several of these children,” she says. “I became fascinated with how to improve working conditions, especially for low-income workers in developing countries who might not have the ability or resources to voice their opinions, or fight for themselves, or collectively organize to demand better conditions. It shaped my interest in applying to undergraduate pool programs where I could focus on the study of labor.”
Ranganathan followed her interest to the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where she studied human resources and labor relations and where mentors urged her to apply to graduate school. She received an MS in international and comparative labor from Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations in 2008, and an MS/PhD in management from MIT’s Sloan School of Management in 2014.
Her desire to expand her study of work in India’s developing economy led her to join the faculty at Stanford GSB. “I felt that at Stanford I’d have the intellectual freedom to pursue my research interests, even though my agenda might be atypical for a business school professor,” she says.
Labors of Love
It was at MIT that Ranganathan began studying the effort to professionalize the highly skilled but low-paid Indian plumbing industry, which traditionally consists almost exclusively of workers of a particular ethnic group from the eastern state of Odisha (Orissa).
“That was my first research project where I began to explore the tension between meaning and money,” Ranganathan says. “I remember being fascinated by how strongly their identity was tied to being a plumber from Orissa — and to being part of a broader community. It was a core part of who they were.”
One day, while exploring India’s handcraft markets, Ranganathan noticed something odd. Artisans were discounting their goods for her — a visitor from abroad — while quoting higher prices to her local assistant. Her subsequent eight-month research project in the southern Indian city of Channapatna showed that artisans, even very poor ones, felt enormous emotional attachment to their creations and cared deeply where those items ended up.
They perceived buyers like Ranganathan, who wore handcrafted clothing and jewelry, as discerning, and those like her assistant, who wore mass-produced clothing and plastic jewelry, as less so. The artisans set prices according to their buyers, lowering them for those they believed would appreciate and care for their crafts, and keeping prices firm — or even raising them slightly — for those seen as less discriminating.
“You’d think economically disadvantaged workers in India would be working only for money, but what my research is beginning to show is that they care deeply about the work they do, just like workers in the U.S. or other developed countries,” Ranganathan says. “Their relationship with work goes beyond what they make. They prioritize their work, sometimes at the cost of leaving money on the table.”
Her unexpected findings had to stand up to some skepticism, says her mentor, Susan Silbey, a professor of sociology and anthropology at MIT.
“This is counterintuitive, counter to common economic theory — that you charge what the market will bear,” says Silbey. “Labor of love is something that philosophers and novelists might write about, but we did not have a great deal of systematic, empirical evidence for how prevalent it is — until Aruna wrote about it. And at first, people didn’t believe her; they were too rational, too economic. But when she did her experiment, she proved it perfectly.”
Finding Joy in the Mundane
Ranganathan also studies identification with work in female-dominated industries in India, such as garment factories, which often have trouble keeping new employees. She’s found first-time workers are more likely to stay employed if they received both regular workplace training and “work readiness” training — necessary skills such as showing up to work on time, dressing appropriately, how to speak to strangers, and even how to access bathrooms.
Unlike artisans, who find job satisfaction in the creation of their art, these factory workers find fulfillment in the opportunities created by joining the workforce.
“What’s interesting is that even in contexts where you wouldn’t expect people to find satisfaction in their work, where the work may be monotonous or mundane, they find ways to do that and get satisfaction from the idea of working,” she says. “Working signifies that they’re financially independent, gives them a reason to wake up, meet other people, wear their good clothes, and get a sense of importance.”
Research on identification with work has largely been limited to the West, but Ranganathan hopes her focus on India and her full-cycle methodology approach (a combination of both qualitative and quantitative techniques) will give a new lens to organizations and policymakers, to help them design systems that foster people’s identification with work — or that at least don’t interfere with it.
“Aruna’s findings are revolutionary and counter to dominant economic theory. They’re telling us how to make a better life for people,” says Silbey. “She’s challenging the fundamental economic theory that everyone’s out to get more for themselves, which has been driving our national policies from the mid-1970s.”
For those short on job satisfaction, Ranganathan offers these insights:
“You don’t have to take a job in the way it’s offered. You can craft your job in a way that gives meaning. Find side projects, build connections with people you work with, learn new skills, and ask the organization how you might begin to transition to a different role. Work is such a core part of our adult lives, it’s a shame not to enjoy what you do.”