The idea that Millennials and Gen Z professionals want work that fulfills their sense of purpose is hardly a new idea. A new report from Cognizant’s Center for The Future of Work finds proof of that, as well as a widening gap between what employers are delivering and what young professionals want.
Purpose in the workplace is twofold, as far as the report is concerned. Both aspects of professional purpose have to do with “values that drive people’s choices, actions and attitudes,” the report said, and further breaks them down between wider social and environmental beliefs and professional/personal objectives.
It’s here that the disconnect occurs: “Yes, the majority (65%) say it’s extremely or very important for their employer to positively impact society in a way that reflects their own values; however, they also want a workplace that fuels their own personal sense of purpose,” the report said.
What that purpose is varies from person to person, but the report finds three leading traits that Millennials (ages 27-40) and Generation Z (ages 20-26) associate with purposeful work: Being passionate about what they do, having a good work/life balance and getting paid well.
“Millennials and Gen Z workers focus less on the external world and more on concerns and issues that have an immediate, direct impact on their work and personal life,” the report said.
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Unfortunately for employers, only 18% of respondents said they “strongly believe they are living their day-to-day purpose in their work life.” Additionally, respondents are overwhelmingly skeptical that their employers are actually serious about meeting goals that have a positive impact on the environment and society: 24% said their employer ‘s “very genuine” about their position, and 46% said it’s only a half-hearted attempt that’s only slightly genuine.
What all of that means, the study said, is that companies need to up their game when it comes to convincing employees that they’re serious about having a positive impact on employees, local communities and the world at large along with shareholders.
“Failure to [adapt to that need], together with an inability to allow young talent to live their own work purpose, poses a serious risk to nurturing tomorrow’s leaders and building a prosperous future for all constituents,” the report said.
How employers can close the purpose gap
As an elder millennial myself, I can say with a high degree of certainty that this study is on the right track. Plenty of people in my age group, and those I know that are younger, have effectively said the same thing; that they aren’t willing to sacrifice their own well being or happiness for a job, especially if it doesn’t pay a decent wage.
Don’t assume this is a temporary position that will soften as we age, either. It’s not just me saying that — the report concludes as much based on the economic conditions Millennials and Gen Z grew up with.
“Studies show that the economic environment in which an individual joins the job market is a key factor in determining both their overall attitude toward work and their longer-term financial prospects,” the report said. It cites the Great Recession of 2008 as a key influence on Millennials, and the COVID-19 pandemic as a key experience for Gen Z.
The pandemic, in particular, “has increased the leverage of workers — all the while making it clear that it is, after all, perfectly possible for many people to be productive working remotely and with flexible hours.” In essence, your younger employees, who could be the future of your company, are probably going to walk if they don’t feel that their employer is meeting their needs.
The report singles out three areas for businesses to improve, thereby closing the purpose gap that could endanger their futures.
Improve internal communication
The report found that there’s a lack of employee knowledge around company social responsibility goals, which may go a long way to explaining skepticism. The only way to fix that problem is to improve internal communication.
The report also recommends that businesses take the time to learn to understand their younger employees. Citing the implementation of “fun” perks over the past few years, the report said that it’s actually respectful communication that young employees want, with 46% citing unfair treatment, and 31% citing a lack of acknowledgement for their work as top reasons for burnout.
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“Companies developing a communication strategy to close the purpose gap must start by asking themselves, ‘What don’t our young workers understand about our corporate purpose?’ and ‘What don’t we understand about their personal purpose,’” the report said.
Additionally, Cognizant recommends involving managers who have direct contact with employees in internal communications, and wise use of tech that doesn’t overburden workers with excessive connectivity.
Help young workers fulfill personal purposes
Step away from micromanagement, the report suggests, and instead give employees guidance without smothering them with constant instruction and little room for learning to do things their own way.
“Empowerment doesn’t mean … leaving employees unsupported, especially when they are just starting their work lives, are new to a company or are facing a novel or tricky situation,” the report said.
Additionally, the report said that young professionals should have a clear idea of how they can build a career with their employer, which again requires helping them find a way to fulfill their personal purpose. This isn’t simple, but if done correctly, the report said it can help companies save money and increase broader job satisfaction by retaining good employees.
Modernize your leadership
The report cites two reasons why company leaders should make it their own responsibility to ensure young employees understand company goals and how their personal purpose can fit into those goals.
First, the report cites the overwhelming skepticism shown by young people in regards to whether they believe their employer is genuine in their social and environmental commitments. Leadership needs to be sure their company “walks the talk,” the report said.
Second, leaders need to be flexible to changes in both what young people expect from their leaders, and how work affects the personal lives of their employees. Forty-two percent of respondents said that flexibility is the most important leadership trait for supporting their sense of purpose, followed by honesty, work competence and integrity.
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Additionally, Cognizant encourages leaders to be the change their employees want to see by “rolling up their sleeves to directly take part in promoting positive social and environmental outcomes,” and to learning to be a follower just as well as a leader.
The report recommends reverse mentoring for the latter, which helps younger people and lower-level employees feel valued in the workplace (not feeling such was a reason four in 10 said they’d left a job).
“In the end, organizations are embedded in the societies of which they are part. As social values and needs evolve, so will workers’ purposes. Being by their side in this journey is key to remaining relevant today and tomorrow,” the report said.