Searching for meaning – why Millennials are losing interest in 9 to 5 careers

Our new Research Consultant, Marc Sowik, interviews millennials and asks how businesses need to adapt to this new demographic.

A growing trend

“Now I feel like I have a purpose – before I felt no connection between what I was doing and the real outcome. I’m going to find something that has some meaning”. A friend said this to me recently over a coffee as we discussed their decision to quit their marketing manager job in search of an as-yet unspecified calling.

This is something I hear a lot on the topic of work and career these days when I speak to friends. I see it too – many people are quitting their post-graduation corporate jobs in pursuit of a whole range of new and exciting directions. I’m 28 which I guess means I’m part of ‘generation Y’ – a group that some businesses seem to struggle with when it comes to engaging, retaining and getting the best from us.

Millennial traits

From the perspective of big business, we’re a ‘group’ apparently characterised by having lower loyalty to organisations that we work for, greater concern for business being a positive force in the world and greater openness to accountability and control.

I reckon these characterisations are roughly true, but I’m also not sure businesses – who pay for the studies that reconfirm these traits – really understand what this means when it comes to engaging the millennial generation. I sometimes even detect negative interpretations – we’re lazy, commitment phobic and mercenary. But these ideas feel like a misinterpretation, the symptoms of a system that is losing alignment with the aspirations of the people it needs to sustain itself – and is feeling the pressure.

Changing aspirations

Of course this isn’t a new phenomenon, but greater numbers of people are now choosing to step away from the traditional career ladder that our parents diligently climbed and are taking risks, starting their own companies or just moving away from ‘work’ as we know it completely.

Studies ratify this: Millennial entrepreneurs start double the amount of businesses as boomers and at a much younger age – seemingly in the face of recession, stagnant productivity and unemployment (BNP Paribas: The Global Entrepreneurs Report 2016). Self-employment in the UK has nearly doubled between 1975 and 2015, with 14% now working for themselves. No doubt technology plays a key role as fewer firms need a traditional structure; offices, products, stock, hierarchy etc. – people now connect and trade quickly and fluidly.

What they say… talking to direction changers

I want to explore why Millennials are taking alternative paths, what they were looking for when they did and why they think people around them are doing the same. I thought the best way to find out was to speak to a few of them:

Claudia, 28, moved from a commodities consultancy to studying for an MSc in Environmental Science:

“I started my graduate job really enthusiastically and was promoted quickly. But I was bored, and not really because of the spreadsheets. It was because I had no real clue what impact my efforts had on anything other than our bottom line, and that’s not enough to motivate me – it doesn’t mean anything to me”

Emma, 32, moved from being a financial analyst for a bank to setting up an ethical fashion business and a gazpacho street-food stall:

“I liked parts of my job in the bank; I’m analytical and I don’t want to lose that. It was the lack of control that made me disengage and leave. I could never get anything done, having to ask people about every decision. Now I’m in control of everything, from the vision to the delivery, and I can incorporate the things I learned from finance too”

Alex, 27, works as a freelance architect whilst giving two days of his time to work on projects in a major charity:

“I think we’re all becoming aware of the abundance of choice now, more so than people were before. We don’t need to work 9-5, 5 days a week to be financially OK. I’d rather work late or on the weekends to know I can go to the park in the morning if it’s sunny. I also don’t need loads of money – I’d rather do something that is important and that allows me to be creative”

I spoke to many more people than this, and there are a lot that are really disenchanted with their working lives (despite what they say in appraisals) – and more and more are starting to realise this and act on it. There are three things that most people mentioned:

  • Needing to see the connection between effort and outcome. This is an old thought, someone once said that removing this connection leaves people “depressed spiritually and physically to the condition of a machine”.
  • Having greater control over how, when and where they do their jobs – focus on the outcomes over appearances.
  • Meaningful work – perhaps the most important. ‘Making money’ (usually for someone else) isn’t a reason to work anymore, it’s a by-product. People want to feel an affinity with what their company achieves.

What does this mean for business?

In some businesses these desires will be naturally fulfilled, but for those that don’t I think this has some serious potential implications:

  • Diversity will suffer. Work environments that operate very traditionally are likely to be unappealing to a greater breadth of people.
  • People will disengage and won’t be able to give their best. Most of the people I spoke to described a period of disengagement before realising they needed to change direction. We all now pretty much agree what the cost of this can be.
  • People will leave and they’ll be talented, entrepreneurial people with vision – the valuable future leaders. Less than a third of Millennials plan to stay in their current firm for 5 years or more. They won’t stick with companies for an idea of security or status.

What can organisations do now?

  • What will your organisation’s legacy be? Solely profit driven firms that give little thought to their social and environmental impact are going to struggle to find good people to work for them. Finding an avenue through which it can ‘give back’ is the minimum – and I’d say something more authentic and meaningful than one day a year for employees to paint a school etc.
  • Measure meaning, connection and control – and give them real significance in the way a workforce is understood. We commonly look at job fit with skill set, but expanding the focus to job fit with wider ambition and values could be an important modernisation.
  • Real personal growth should be prioritised alongside professional development. Companies should help fund education, encourage sabbaticals and challenge people to achieve outside work.
  • ‘Human’ managers and respectful relationships. Where managers understand and care about people and aren’t constrained by ‘performance management’ it’s much more likely they’ll have honest dialogue with employees.

What type of company do you work for? Do you know what part your role plays in what your company really does? Does your work give your life a sense of meaning and purpose, beyond financial? Is this important?

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