Welcome to our new series, Work/Life, which aims to shine a light on the psychology of work and its influence on the workplace and the future of work. Nine out of ten employees are willing to earn less for greater meaning at work—but what makes a job meaningful? And how can we create more meaningful jobs?
Attempting to answer the question of what makes a job meaningful seems like a near-impossible task, if not only because people find purpose in different things. Some find it in financial rewards or solving puzzles, while others find it in relationships and providing solutions. The answer is a deeply personal one and unequivocally depends on who you are a person.
The search for meaningful work has captured somewhat of a zeitgeist. It is the subject of viral think pieces and dozens of studies coming out of the world’s most prominent research institutions. It’s captured the attention of millions and shined a light on their career apathy. It is also driving significant changes at modern companies as they try to attract and retain top talent.
But all of this talk about finding purpose in one’s place of work is relatively new. Before meaningful work, there was the American Dream, which promised happiness and meaning in life as a whole, rather than just at the office. So before we attempt to answer what makes a job meaningful, we must look at the cultural shift towards valuing meaning in work, what has been pioneered by Millennials.
For decades, Americans have relied on the American Dream as the framework for the life we aspire to have. Loosely characterized by three main factors—job stability, home ownership, and building a family—and supposedly achievable if you worked hard enough, the American Dream represented the pinnacle of success (see: happiness). But over the years, the American Dream seemed increasingly unattainable despite how hard you worked.
The internet unchained work from the office desk and allowed us to carry it home. The 40-hour work week turned to the 50- and 60-hour workweek, and even more for some. Yet, wages remained stagnant; today’s average salary has about the same purchasing power as it did 40 years ago, according to the Pew Research Center. Millennials are taking fewer vacations, working longer hours, and expect to work well into their 70s.
Advances in family planning made it possible for individuals to be more deliberate about starting a family. Younger generations are deciding to have children later in life compared to previous generations for many reasons, not the least being job instability. People are trying to have more financial security before having children, and especially as the cost of raising a child keeps increasing.
And finally, homeownership is no longer a priority for younger generations. Millennials had a front-row seat to how the 2008 housing crisis affected their parents and are thus reluctant to buy. What’s more, Millennials are concentrated in high-cost cities, where homeownership is unattainable. These reasons paired with student loan debt and stagnant wages explain why Millennials aren’t buying homes.
Today, the American Dream holds much less influence on Americans’ life decisions. But still, they want to find success. Success just looks different today. Fifty years ago, a job was just a job—something we left at the door at 5:00 pm. But the decline of manufacturing and the rise of the knowledge economy has ushered in a new type of job, a new type of success—known as meaningful work.
According to new data from Gallup, four out of five college graduates consider a sense of purpose either very important or extremely important to their work. The study, Forging Pathways to Purposeful Work, which polled 2,205 grads and 637 hiring managers, found that compared to older graduates, Millennials are more likely to derive purpose from their work than from other sources.
What’s more, the study revealed that graduates who find their work meaningful are ten times more likely to have high overall wellbeing. Gallup has been developing a wellbeing measure since the mid-20th century alongside leading economists, psychologists, and other globally-acclaimed scientists.
An interesting insight from Gallup’s years of research in the subject is that wellbeing is not static—it is deeply personal, changes over time and according to life experiences, and evolves with the culture. Purpose, which the organization defines “as liking what you do everyday and learning or doing something interesting each day,” is the most influential element of wellbeing and has a disproportional impact on one’s happiness—for better or for worse. Decades of Gallup research prove a tangible correlation between meaningful work and overall wellbeing.
“Workers with deep intellectual and emotional connections to their work deliver a host of benefits that extend far beyond themselves individually to their work unit and their organization, such as improvements in productivity, profitability and other critical outcomes,” the Gallup Forging Pathways to Purposeful Work study cites. “Employees who are meaningfully engaged at work not only support the success of their organizations but also, by extension, contribute to thriving local and national economies.”
Companies are well-aware of the trickle-down effect of meaningful work and are anxious to build more meaningful work in their organizations. BetterUp was founded with these needs in mind. It helps professionals find more clarity and purpose through career coaching and other services and counts Workday, Airbnb, LinkedIn, and Lyft as customers.
BetterUp says that employees who place a higher value on meaningful work tend to occupy more senior and skilled positions and stay longer. They are also more motivated to work an extra hour per week and to take two fewer days of paid leave per year. The resulting gains in worker productivity from meaningful work adds up to $9,000 per worker per year.
The firm implores companies to prioritize meaningful work not only for the wellbeing of their employees but also because happier, healthier, more motivated workers bring financial rewards. Building greater meaning in the workplace is no longer a nice-to-have but a must-have.
Despite this, companies don’t know how to create meaningful work. In the 2019 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report, most employees don’t feel like their companies are effective at creating meaningful work, and nearly one-quarter of companies do not feel they know what rewards their employees’ value.
There has been no shortage of “office perks” in the modern workplace. Candy walls, ping pong tables, nap rooms, and paid lunches are just a handful of rewards that companies are implementing into the office to make it more attractive to Millennial workers, but those rewards are surface-level. All of the above research reaffirms that people are looking for purpose and impact in their work lives—not free snacks.
Ultimately though, employees need to set off on their own quest to find purpose in their careers. Meaningful work provides a sense of belonging, impact, and being valued, but it looks different to different people. If you don’t know what you like and don’t like about work, your employer can’t help you. As Ashley Goodall, senior vice president of leadership and team intelligence at Cisco, told The New York Times, “When you look at people who are thriving in their jobs, you notice that they didn’t find them, they made them.”