the dutch and meaningful work

What Does a Meaningful Work Society Look Like? The Dutch Provide Answers

Greetings from Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Our stay in this beautiful country has been awe inspiring, to say the least.

What is more, we got to see the millions of blooming tulips at Keukenhof Gardens in the city of Leiden.

We were transformed by the nearly religious experience.

The Dutch and Meaningful Work go hand in hand.

Nine days in the Netherlands has exposed us to a country that by necessity lives well within its means, yet remains perhaps the-most entrepreneurial culture in Europe. Our American eyes could not help but notice how so many people live in so little square footage, and yet they seem cheerful and full of purpose, inventing new tools and approaches to further improve their lives.

They are also sharply focused on what should, to Americans, matter most: managing time, honoring family and friends, having fun, but also pursuing in life and work profound purpose.

Most jarring to our American eyes was witnessing a typical Amsterdam rush hour. Americans are used to being single drivers in cars often commuting long distances. We Americans are often alone on our journeys, thus, rendered tired as well as physically, mentally, and emotionally stressed. But in stark comparison, the Dutch take to the streets not alone in cars but together on bicycles; children ride their bikes to school while the adults take to their bikes to work. (FUN FACT: There are no yellow school busses in Amsterdam.) The sight of so many riders reminded me of the symbiotic relationship of bees in a beehive; each bee interacts with other bees and yet they know where they are headed and what their day is all about.

To paraphrase author and guest of The Tightrope with Dan Smolen podcast Morley Winograd, the new American trend in meaningful work—most notably pursued by Millennials and Plurals (Gen Zs)—is the recognition that work (or school) is part the day, not the day. But in Amsterdam and elsewhere in the Netherlands, bike culture has been an enduring institution for well over 100 years; that bike ride from home to school or work allows for a natural transition, cordial if not warm engagement with others headed to their day, and a sense that all are a part of something greater than themselves.

There are more bikes in Amsterdam than there are riders. And, oh by the way, it is striking to see so many physically fit people who keep their cores toned and tight by not getting to work behind the wheel of a car.

Bikes are the most visible symbol of symbiosis in Dutch society, but it doesn’t answer completely the secret sauce to their living purposeful lives by doing meaningful work. I asked Helen, the docent leading our tour of the Rijksmuseum what she thought made Dutch society such a driver for meaningful living and work. Without hesitation, she answered: “the Dutch are a fun-loving people, and yet they know that they must also follow rules to make society flourish: frugality, inventiveness, social conscience, and mindfulness.

the dutch and meaningful workMeaningful work flourishes in this country, because the outputs of such work are so necessary to the nation’s future. Many thousands of Dutch are employed in clean energy; across the Netherlands and well into the North Sea stands the world’s largest array of wind turbines, which are helping this country rid itself of other forms of energy: Russian natural gas and filthy, toxic brown coal. Countless others are on the front lines of climate change as the Netherlands is ground zero for sea-level rise; many thousands of Dutch workers are raising by many meters the heights of levees and dams in the northern part of the country, to keep the Netherlands from experiencing future devastating floods. Others, especially in agribusiness, are growing their crops with less energy and chemistry. And millions of others are plunging head on as entrepreneurs bringing to market advances in AI, 3D printing, sustainable building (some projects are transforming old cargo containers into luxury housing), and global finance initiatives providing microloans to people in poor countries.

So, what does a meaningful work society look like? Here are three insights:

  1. It’s a society that recognizes that the world beyond its borders is in peril, and that through shared purpose people can mitigate the changing climate, help other people and communities, and make the planet a better place;
  2. To that end, it is a society that places considerable constraints on excess—such as driving solo to work versus taking mass transit or a bike, or living in more space than one needs to thrive, and;
  3. By placing structure around the day, more people lead happier lives than not. One cannot help but notice how much more content Dutch workers are than their dyspeptic American counterparts.

Getting to where the Dutch are living meaningful lives and doing meaningful work will not be easy for American workers. These things are enmeshed in their culture, not ours. To get more Americans to a meaningful work culture means committing to rules and structure of daily living and to a purpose that makes the world more sustainable and people and communities supported.

But as we walk the Tightrope to finding and doing meaningful work—the future of work—we should keep the Dutch in our heads and hearts, as they have done more than practically any developed country to grow and foster a working and thriving meaningful work culture. Like happy worker bees in a thriving hive, they successfully lead work and lives of true and noble purpose.

And with their help and inspiration, our best days lie ahead.

DAN SMOLEN is founder of The Dan Smolen Experience. He is also the executive producer and host of The Tightrope with Dan Smolen podcast. Listen and subscribe to us by keywording “The Tightrope with Dan Smolen” on Apple Podcasts. Also, please rate us and offer suggestions for future guests and topics.

Photo credits: Amsterdam Rush Hour Bike Commute, Dan Smolen; Offshore Dutch wind turbines, Dan Smolen.