June 17, 2024 – Future of Work

What we are reading: Finding meaning at work is a journey that will benefit employees and employers


In a job or career, does meaning matter? 

We believe it does, but also recognize finding fulfillment is not something that necessarily comes with a first job. Identifying purpose takes time and investment from both the worker and the employer. The journey may come in fits and starts, and with plenty of detours. 

As 2024 graduates move on from high school, college, or other learning programs, here are some of lessons we have gleaned from recent articles about the pursuit of meaning and purpose at work. 

Knowing purpose is a lifelong journey will reduce frustration and anxiety

According to The New York Times, recent elite college graduates are focused on earnings, instead of purpose and meaning at work. A recent survey by Gallup and the Walton Family Foundation highlighted by Business Insider illustrated how this single-minded focus eventually can harm individuals. The poll found:

  • Only six in 10 Gen Zers always or often feel their life has direction;
  •  of Gen Z do not find their daily tasks interesting, important, or motivating; and
  • Since 1998, the share of disconnected youths in that age group has been on the rise.

Success magazine offers advice to find deeper meaning in work, including learning from other peoples’ stories, academic research, historical wisdom, pop culture perspectives, and organizations that help both employers and employees create a workplace culture of purpose. These organizations, like BetterUp, do remind people that pursuing purpose is a lifelong journey.

“It can be easy to put a lot of pressure on yourself to find the best-fitting purpose and dedicate your life to it. But you may have more than one purpose that changes throughout your life’s chapters,” the article says. “If you feel frustrated about your life purpose not feeling obvious, remember you have an entire lifetime to find your passions. Don’t let purpose anxiety keep you from putting in the work for self-improvement.”

For individuals, meaning is tied to discovering aptitudes

In Harvard Business Review, organizational studies professor Stephen Friedman also warned anxiety can erupt when individuals fail to view the pursuit of purpose and meaning as lifelong. 

While we disagree with Friedman’s advice that young people avoid this anxiety by setting aside questions of purpose when looking for a job, Friedman provided a helpful analogy for how to think of the pursuit of meaning at work. “Consider how the characteristics of our romantic relationships, as well as our relationships with friends and family, evolve as we enter adulthood,” Friedman wrote. “As we grow older, our needs and goals begin to change — and they keep changing, almost unpredictably, throughout our lives.”

Friedman also reminded readers that achieving a sense of fulfillment at work is tied to an individual’s quest to discover and develop their natural aptitudes. He suggested people ask:

  • What do I like, prefer, or enjoy doing;
  • What am I good at; and
  • Would this role provide growth and learning that I can use later?

“Research has shown that doing what you are good at and using your developing strengths at work is associated with greater meaningfulness,” Friedman explains. 

Employers who look for new ways for people to contribute create mutual benefit

If pursuing fulfillment in a career is a lifelong journey, employers will retain employees if they partner with them in their pursuit of meaningful work. And they will profit. A PwC survey of business leaders found 79 percent of executives think purpose is central to business success.

“One effective way for companies to increase flexibility and reduce employee anxiety is to retrain workers and give them opportunities to transfer into promising areas of the organization,” Wharton School professor Peter Cappelli and human resources specialist Ranya Nehmeh wrote in Harvard Business Review. “Despite the fact that training is necessary to grow talent from within, companies invest remarkably little in it. … The dearth of training translates into fewer opportunities to move up.”

Cappelli and Nehmeh explained that when IBM offered employees about to be restructured out of jobs the option to receive training in lieu of severance, many took advantage of the offer. The program benefited both IBM and these employees by resulting in higher productivity, better employee fit, and lower turnover. With Inc. reporting that nearly nine in 10 investors saying workforce engagement a key driver of performance for companies they fund, businesses that invest in their people also can attract new dollars for investment and innovation. 

Identifying purpose and developing meaning are not easy, but pursuing them is a journey that will benefit both employers and the people who work for them.