What Do You Really Want - Purpose or Culture?

Companies want to convince us that we’re changing the world. That’s the main point of this Wall Street Journal article, “I Don’t Have a Job. I Have a Higher Calling." From travel agencies to accounting firms, the rhetoric is shifting toward how their work is connected to “grand consequences for mankind.” (love that phrase, by the way).

Is this a radical, enlightened shift in corporate thinking? Of course not. Companies want to attract and retain mission driven millennials, and are really good at telling us what we want to hear. According to Deloitte's latest Millennial Survey, 6 out of 10 millennials said a sense of purpose is part of the reason they chose to work for their current employer. Research done at Yale (discussed in the WSJ article) found that professionals motivated by purpose are more satisfied with their jobs, work longer hours, and take fewer days off.

A job can’t just be a job anymore because we’re so much more productive when we're trying to create a better world.

What about changing the world outside of work? Millennials seem to have cultivated an assumption that work has to be the largest part of our lives and is therefore the place we can make the greatest impact. As pointed out by the WSJ article, we rationalize ourselves away from more traditional sources of meaning, such as religion, in order to have a bigger impact at work, and companies are riding the wave.

But is working longer, harder hours really what we want? Similarly, how far are we willing to go in order to justify every career as a higher calling? What I think mission driven millennials are really searching for is a meaningful life. Our jobs are certainly part of that, but so are strong relationships with family and friends, service to our community and a healthy, active lifestyle.

As “purpose” becomes more and more ubiquitous, the companies that will succeed in retaining millennial talent will be the ones with strong culture. Companies that can provide a culture that empowers a more holistic sense of purpose will increasingly differentiate themselves from their competitors who seek to exploit the motivations of millennials with “purpose-washing”.

To be fair, I think it’s important that more companies are considering the positive impact their work has on the world. But asking us to rationalize being overworked, underappreciated and out of balance for an, at best, correlated positive outcome, is exploitive. Mission driven millennials are going to see through it.