Do you really need ‘meaning’ at work?

You’ve likely heard this before: Kegerators, ping-pong tables, and company retreats are nice perks to offer, but they don’t really scratch the surface on what millennial employees want from their careers.

So, if not in-office baristas and company-sponsored gym memberships, then what? What exactly do they want to wrap their supposedly greedy and entitled mitts around?

It all boils down to this one loaded word: meaning.

“You say I’ll get a raise in a year if the company hits a certain number? So what?” asks Elizabeth McLeod in an open letter from millennials that went viral on LinkedIn, “I need something to care about today. Talk to me about how we make a difference, not your ROI report.”

It’s a common cry heard from millennials across the country—they’re in search of purpose-driven careers. But, this concept can undoubtedly feel both overwhelming and totally intangible to employers who are eager to retain their younger talent. In all honesty, it feels intangible to me—a millennial who has admittedly echoed this same complaint myself.

So, what exactly does meaning at work look like? And, beyond that, how important is it… really?

Sorry boomers, it’s not a generational thing

This search for meaningful careers has largely been attributed to the millennial generation. We’re entitled. We’re overly connected. We think we should be able to work where we want, when we want, and how we want—and spend the rest of our time stuffing avocado toast into our faces with reckless abandon.

But, here’s the thing: The desire for work that’s meaningful isn’t just a generational thing. In fact, it applies to pretty much everybody.

“I think everybody—people from all generations—wants a sense of meaning from their careers,” explains Bruce Tulgan, Founder of RainmakerThinking and author of Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials.

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Just take a look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and you’ll see that this sense of prestige, accomplishment, and achieving one’s full potential appears toward the top.

“To be clear on this, there are a lot of things people need in life,” shares Dr. Alec Levenson, Senior Research Scientist with the University of Southern California Center for Effective Organizations and co-author of What Millennials Want From Work: How to Maximize Engagement in Today’s Workforce.

“You have to satisfy a lot of base desires and needs first before you can talk about higher order needs. And, purpose and meaning are high-order needs—very high-order.”

“Nobody has come up with any research that has shown—using that kind of frame—that Millennials are any different than any other generation,” Dr. Levenson adds.

Defining meaning: What is it… really?

While it’s good to know that this isn’t just another opportunity to peg Millennials as whiny and entitled, there’s another big question that lingers: What exactly is meaning?

It’s a concept that’s notoriously difficult for employers and employees alike to define—and for good reason.

“Part of the reason this isn’t a specific that is easily acted on by employers is because every individual has a different idea of what makes work meaningful for them,” explains Dr. Jennifer Deal, who’s also a Senior Research Scientist with the Center for Effective Organizations and Dr. Levenson’s co-author.

“For example, for some people having meaning at work is mostly about the content of the work itself,” she continues, “For some it is about opportunity, for some it is about the people they work with, and for some it is about making the world a better place. Each individual will have a different combination of factors that makes work feel like it has meaning and purpose for them.”

“It means different things to different people,” echoes Tulgan, “Overall, I think when people say they want their work to have a sense of ‘meaning,’ they mean they want their work to contribute to something larger than themselves, larger than just the effort necessary and the specific outcomes of the tasks and responsibilities.”

“Meaning comes largely from how the person doing the work thinks about the work,” he adds, “Meaning in work is so much about the interpretive lens of the worker.”

Meaning and money: Do millennials expect too much?

When you come back to the core issue of what millennials want out of work, meaning is undoubtedly a big piece of the puzzle—but, make no mistake, that’s not the only thing on the list.

They also want professional development (one Gallup study says that 87% of millennials say development is important in a job). Flexibility is another critical factor. Need proof? Thirty-four percent of millennials have quit their jobs because flexible work was not an option.

Oh, and they want decent pay too—in fact, one Business Insider study claims that millennials ranked salary as more important than meaningful work.

Feel confused? Considering the fact that it sounds like millennials are in search of a career unicorn, employers are left feeling that same way.

“This was a huge hot button on the article I wrote,” explains McLeod, a millennial herself, “I had a lot of older people messaging me saying, ‘Work is for money, nothing else, suck it up!’ And, I see why it’s frustrating—if you have ‘sucked it up’ at a job you hate for 40 years—to have some young person suggest that work doesn’t have to be like that.”

McLeod does admit that millennials may have some unrealistic expectations, but that the search for meaning isn’t one of them. “No one should spend 50 hours a week doing something they don’t care about,” she says.

Tulgan, however, is a little more willing to admit that many millennials have their heads in the clouds when it comes to what they expect out of their jobs—aside from just a paycheck.

“Our research shows that most millennials are trying to wrap their working life around the kind of non-working life they value,” he says, “So, if millennials are hoping to make good money, have lots of flexibility, and also do work that seems meaningful to them (either a lot or a little), then they are hoping for dream jobs. Such jobs certainly exist. But, if you have to make a living, then usually there are trade-offs in a work situation.”

“There’s a little bit of blame at the feet of people like myself who teach undergraduates and make it out to be like the world of work is something where you should be looking for meaning,” admits Dr. Levenson, “For people who have found themselves careers where it’s meaningful to them, that’s awesome. That’s great. But, that tends to be the minority of the population.”

Dr. Levenson explains that it really all comes back to basics—and particularly Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. “People can’t be looking for meaning in work if they’re worried about not having enough money to make ends meet,” he shares, “If you’d ask people to prioritize, they’d say that’s a nice thing to think about, but I’m having too many struggles with stability to worry about meaning.”

The search for meaning: Not a new conversation

The bottom line is that meaning at work is an important consideration—for some people more than others. And, the research and statistics are all there to back that up.

“We can sit here all day and argue whether this expectation of purpose is too high,” says McLeod, “But, the reality is, companies who are purpose-focused dramatically outperform their competitors in terms of revenue, retention, engagement, innovation and profit.”

With all of that said, this conversation about meaning isn’t exactly a new one—as a matter of fact, Dr. Levenson describes it as “old wine in new bottles.”

Ultimately, when it comes to successful management, retention, and engagement, Dr. Levenson claims that employers already know what they need to know—it’s just a matter of implementing it.

“We actually know what to do,” he concludes, “If companies did 80-90% of what they should be doing in terms of setting appropriate goals, giving feedback, using performance management, showing employees how to improve, mentoring, providing opportunities to develop, and rewarding employees, then an enormous number of problems leaders see amongst their people would disappear overnight.”