That perceived “meaninglessness” is not because the younger generation is more idealistic than their predecessors, but because first jobs involve a lot of hard work that often seems pointless. Skill development can be an unpleasant process, filled with boring tasks that need to be mastered, and inevitable failures that sometimes feel frustrating and humiliating.
Saving the world
It’s hard to find meaning while you’re drinking coffee non-stop or spending the night obsessing over the font in someone else’s PowerPoint presentation. But this is how you learn skills like customer service, time management, and negotiation culture in the workplace.
So the first jobs are not that different. What may have changed is the expectation that each job is supposed to be meaningful in a particular way to save the world.
Those new expectations are a reflection of a world that has changed, especially recently. Working from home means less time chatting with colleagues, which leaves more time to wonder what the point of it all is. Work also feels less meaningful if you don’t feel part of a team because you don’t see yourself helping your co-workers. A tight job market also means that people can be a bit more picky about the job they choose.
There are also larger cultural changes that have been brewing for decades. MBAs no longer want to be Gordon Gekko, they want to be Bill Gates (at least during his philanthropic stage). Many tech companies promise workers a mission to make the world a better place, and that sounds compelling. And across the country, many people are less connected to their communities or churches, and now their work has to fill that void.
This is not just economically inefficient; Jobs with lofty missions and promises of spiritual fulfillment often lead to frustration. In reality, a large part of job satisfaction comes from feeling like there is a path forward. That’s one of the reasons the military (where keeping morale high is especially critical) has such rigid and clear paths forward. If you work at a company where the mission is to make a profit, the metrics for moving forward are clear.
When the mission is more confusing, progress becomes more arbitrary, and that can kill morale. Take online shoe store Zappos, for example, which once promised to have a purpose: to be the kind of place you’d even work for free. Eventually, the culture became toxic because employees had no idea what success meant or what they needed to do to move forward.
Consider this: Although the McKinsey survey found that workers want to find meaning in their jobs, the industry with one of the highest attrition rates is nonprofits.
Employers must make tough decisions to stay in business. That may mean working with a client who doesn’t conform to your moral standards or avoiding controversial political issues. It may mean moving some jobs abroad where labor is cheaper. These choices are understandable when the mission is profit. But if the mission is to make the world a better place, each employee will have different ideas of what is acceptable (especially if he is paid less and works long hours in service of this mission). So it’s hard not to take everything personally, which leads to a much more toxic culture.
Most of us spend a large part of our lives at work. It is important to have a sense of purpose and be motivated by what we do. But what few people will tell you is that the meaning doesn’t come from a mission to change the world. People feel valuable when they can apply their problem-solving skills. Sometimes that satisfaction comes from solving the world’s big problems, but more often it’s conquering the little ones. People who report high levels of job satisfaction often don’t work at cool startups or NGOs; You’ll find them in all kinds of jobs, like driving trucks. They do their job well, apply their skills and get paid accordingly, it’s not complicated.
All jobs are meaningful. If someone pays you to do something, it has value. And if the desire for a job with a big mission that will give your life meaning prevents you from working hard or staying in a job long enough to develop skills, you’ll not only make less money, you’ll never find what you’re looking for. .
Allison Schrager is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, the author of An economist walks into a brothel: and other unexpected places to understand the risk.