Wharton management professor Amy Wrzesniewski and INSEAD’s Winnie Jiang studied the shrinking field of journalism to better understand how workers grapple with occupational instability and declining careers. Their co-authored paper, “Perceived Fixed or Flexible Meaning: Toward a Model of Meaning Fixedness and Navigating Occupational Instability,” appears in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly.

Knowledge at Wharton spoke with Wrzesniewski about the research. Read an edited transcript of the conversation below.


Are Careers in Journalism Over? Studying the Decline of a Field

Angie Basiouny: Welcome to Knowledge at Wharton. With me today is Wharton management professor Amy Wrzesniewski. She’s been taking a look at the meaning of work — how we derive a sense of purpose and identity from what we chose to do for a living. Her latest paper looks at occupational instability. In other words, what happens to that sense of meaning and purpose when our careers are threatened, or we can no longer do that thing that we love so much?

Amy, I am very interested in your paper and why you took a specific look at the field of journalism, which has undergone tremendous changes in the last 15 years or so. I know because I used to be in it. I was a journalist for more than 20 years, so your paper feels really personal. Why did you choose to study occupational instability? And explain why careers in journalism provided a context for you to do so.

Amy Wrzesniewski: I am always interested in trying to understand dynamics and processes that shape how people make meaning of their work. I’m particularly interested in contexts where it’s likely to be challenging to do that for some reason. That could be anything from the person working in a stigmatized occupation, or the person is working remotely from the organization and is physically isolated from their colleagues. That was more novel before the pandemic. In this paper, there’s a lot that we know about how people navigate job loss and questions of meaning around that.

But what’s different about occupational destabilization, or in the case of journalism — particularly print journalism — occupational decline, is that it presents a really different puzzle. It’s not just about finding another role in another organization. The number of roles is shrinking so fast and the decline is so severe that people who had dedicated their whole professional lives, who had invested their identities in journalism, were increasingly finding themselves without a perch from which to do that work. My co-author, Winnie Jiang, and I felt like that’s a unique set of challenges for people for whom the work that they’re doing is very meaningful, so this would be interesting to study.

Basiouny: You had some crushing factoids in your paper: The journalism field has declined by about 80%, and it’s one of the fastest-declining disciplines that requires a college degree. How did you go about studying this occupational instability?

Wrzesniewski: Winnie Jiang, who is a faculty member at INSEAD, really gets the credit, and I want to make sure that I give that to her. As a doctoral student, she came to me and said, “I’m really interested in this context of journalism because it seems like it’s under attack. It is not just in the U.S., but in different parts of the world, too. It’s in decline. This is likely to yield interesting insights around how people are navigating this and navigating questions of meaning,” which was our mutual research interest.

It began simply by reaching out to some of the people that we knew who either were working in journalism or had decided to leave journalism to just learn more about their experiences. From there, we realized this is a context that is full of insight and full of, frankly, pain, over what’s happening in the occupation. We really ought to go ahead and do a much more systematic approach, drawing people into a sample to interview them and develop research study protocols.

We interviewed a total of 94 journalists, 72 of them we followed over time to look at the ways in which they navigated either figuring out a way to stay in journalism or an exit entirely, and looking at what seemed to be related to those kinds of outcomes.

What Does It Mean to Be a Journalist?

Basiouny: I want to encourage people to take a look at this paper, because those interviews that you and your co-author culled are just so rich. You have a lot of excerpts where you talk to them about their feelings about leaving or staying in the profession. And it provides so much fantastic insight and data into this thing that you’re describing in your paper, which is fixed meaning and flexible meaning. Can we talk a little bit about that?

Wrzesniewski: Yes. And before I do, I just want to say I agree with you. The data are absolutely beautiful from the point of view of these transcribed interviews and the coding that we did of those interviews. It’s not lost on me that these are journalists. These are people who think and read and write for a living, and write in a way that is compelling to broad swaths of the public or the specific audiences that they’re targeting. It’s perhaps unsurprising, but still very moving, how they talk about their own experiences. I’ve interviewed occupational populations across the gamut of industries and sectors in the U.S. and these are, by far, some of the most profound and profoundly beautiful and poignant quotes that I’ve ever had in a study.

To the question of fixed and flexible meanings, as we started to delve into these interviews and ask people simply about their experiences with journalism — how they came to enter it, how it had changed over time, and how they were navigating this — one of the things we realized is some of the journalists in the sample talked about the work as being deeply meaningful to them. They talked about the tasks, the relationships, and the kind of impact that journalism has as elements that were constituting a whole. These were elements that were kind of locked together. It’s what it meant to be a journalist. And there was no way to take any of those elements — the writing, the public service, the advocacy, the community-based work — out of the journalistic whole and have it continue to mean anything in some other context. Writing, say, for other kinds of entities or outlets or what have you.

We called those people “the fixed meaning” mindset people because they really seemed to not be able to see any of the portfolio of activities or skills that journalists have as being portable to anything other than journalism. And felt like it would become utterly meaningless to do this same activity in another kind of occupation or profession.

Those contrasted with the people in the sample who also felt that journalism was very meaningful to them, also mourned what they saw as the decline of this occupation, but were far more able to move out of that experience of mourning and out of those kinds of emotional experiences to say, “Well, there are many skills that journalists have, and I could take this one piece of it that I like and practice it or execute it over here, and it’s a way for me to keep going and to keep myself employed.” And though they never saw that other kind of work as being nearly as meaningful as journalism was, it was at least a way for them to keep going.

Finding Meaning Beyond Your Career in Journalism

Basiouny: Can you translate fixed meaning and flexible meaning in terms of other professions or individuals who find themselves at a crossroads in their career path?

Wrzesniewski: Absolutely. I think any occupation that is beginning to feel a threat — it’s often technological change, but it can also come from other forces as well, economic forces — where the occupation is contracting, declining, or destabilized somehow. Any of those kinds of situations or contexts is going to be characterized by the same thing that we studied. Can you keep doing this kind of work with these kinds of people, having this kind of impact, in the same way? And if the answer is no, because things have changed in the environment around that occupation or around that job, then anyone who’s in that situation is going to be dealing with the same kind of challenges that the journalists were. So, any occupation in which technological change is either shrinking the occupation or changing the mix of what it is that people in the organization or in the occupation do for a living.

To make it personal, one of the things during COVID that I think a lot of faculty were thrilled about was that nobody seemed to prefer all online school. The students missed being in the classroom, and the faculty missed being in the classroom with the students. And there was a sense of what might have been a more looming technological threat — that all education can happen online, we don’t need campuses any longer, and so on — was quickly revealed to be maybe less of a threat than we had worried.

Even in occupations that aren’t declining or destabilizing, if you think about an individual over the course of their career, someone could be promoted into a position that changes the mix of tasks, relationships, and impact that they see comprising the job, in ways that they don’t like. If they see these things as fixed and fused, and to be the professional they want to be they don’t want to change or pull out any element of that, then they will struggle also even with something that could be good news like a promotion, if it is threatening this sense of the meaningful whole of the occupation as they see it.

How to Survive Occupational Instability in Other Fields

Basiouny: What are the implications for managers and employees dealing with occupational instability? What are some of the things that they can control?

Wrzesniewski: I think it can be quite difficult to control the larger societal, economic, technological forces, right? Those are very hard to keep at bay. So, I think the thing that we need to focus on is the kind of control that people can have, and maybe managers can help people have, over their response to this.

On the one hand, we could see a journalist having a fixed meaning mindset as being quite heroic, right? They’re going down with the ship. They are, “Once a journalist, always a journalist.” But I have to say, these people inspired great worry in me because they were often taking jobs where they were being paid pennies on the dollar of what they had been able to command in more stable times in journalism. They were holding to their original occupation, but doing it in ways that were leading them into what I worried would be peril around their ability to survive and to keep doing this work in this way.

I think probably the most helpful thing that managers can do and employees can keep in mind when facing this kind of instability is making a proactive decision. If you want to stay the course, what that’s going to take and how else you want to try to support yourself or keep yourself stable while you do that? But it seems to me that helping people understand the need to evolve if the context is requiring that, and then to be systematic and thoughtful about looking at what are the tasks and interactions, relationships, kinds of impact that they’re having in the work that they love most, and then to be quite disciplined about thinking about where else could that experience be either duplicated, or if it can’t be duplicated or repeated elsewhere, that at least an echo of it could be. To take some element of the most meaningful aspects of the work as a guide to carry into, how might you look at the kinds of occupations or roles or even different positions in the organization that you could possibly take?

Basiouny: You’ve been studying work meaning and identity for the span of your career. What expert advice do you have for us?

Wrzesniewski: If I looked across the span of time that I’ve been studying these questions, I think my advice comes down to two points, ultimately. The first would be, it very much seems to be the case that people who choose or move into or happen to find themselves in work in which the work is about more than just an economic exchange with the organization or with the employer, that those people seem to be better off in both the short and longer term. If the work can be attached or connected for the worker to something they see as being worthwhile to them and to the world in some way, that seems to make an enormous difference in people’s experience of their work and people’s satisfaction with their lives. So, that would be the first piece of advice. If possible, find or maneuver your way between organizations — it could be within the same organization — into something where the meat of what you’re doing is something that you feel matters beyond the fact that it’s also throwing off a paycheck.

If you can’t do that, if that’s not feasible for some reason and moving on or moving along is just not possible, I would suggest my second point, which is to think about how can you act upon the boundaries of that job — essentially craft the job that you’re in — to change some things about the tasks that you’re doing, change some things about the interactions and relationships you’re engaging in, change some things about how it is you’re thinking about and approaching the job or the role as a whole. That will help you derive the kinds of meaning that you most want to experience in the work. Sometimes people do this in secret. They don’t let their managers know that they’re making these tweaks to their job designs. And they seem to be quite powerful for helping people have a sense of agency in their work, but also changing parts of how they’re enacting the job in ways that allow them to derive the kind of meaning they most seek.