At a glance
Twenty years ago, most corporate highflyers were driven by the prestige of working for the “right” company and securing a series of promotions that led to ever higher salaries, recalls Phil Preston, founder and CEO of the Business Purpose project and author of Connecting Profit with Purpose.
“‘Doing good’ was something that you either did outside of work or that was, perhaps, incidental to it,” Preston says.
“Many people had a mindset of, ‘If I'm successful in my career, I'll hopefully retire early with a lot of wealth and can then give something back.’”
Now, more workers are looking for a sense of purpose from their work, in addition to things like career development and healthy salary growth.
Younger workers want to maximise the difference they make, says Preston.
“Gen Z sees purpose as core to their work, rather than incidental.”
A report from social research firm McCrindle has found that almost two-thirds of under 25s cite being stuck in a job they don’t find fulfilling as one of their biggest fears.
While older workers tend to feel a sense of duty to their employer, and put higher value on earnings potential and being able to save money, this does not necessarily hold true for younger workers, says Jane Jackson, author of Navigating Career Crossroads and founder of the Careers Academy.
“Gen Y and millennials don’t typically feel the same strong sense of loyalty. They want to feel appreciated as an individual for the contributions they make,” she says.
Make it meaningful
Purposeful career growth is a trend that was accelerated by successive COVID-19 lockdowns, which prompted many people to reassess their career and life choices.
“During the COVID-19 lockdowns, I started getting more bookings for career clarity checks,” says Jackson.
“People were saying, ‘What else can I do? I don't enjoy what I'm doing. The culture is not a good fit. The work is not meaningful for me’.”
In guiding her clients toward finding a sense of purpose at work, Jackson says the first step is to identify core values. She suggests ranking them in order of importance to recognise which ones are non-negotiable.
“‘Purpose’ means something different to every individual. For some people, it could be money, status, recognition, advancement or gaining new knowledge, but for others, it's more to do with affiliation, appreciation or making a difference in the community.”
By contrast, some people work for purely utilitarian reasons – to put food on the table or to achieve a certain standard of living.
They may get their sense of purpose outside work – volunteering, coaching a sports team or learning a new skill, like dancing or photography.
Some people find their family or close relationships provide a rich source of purpose, and having a healthy work-life balance enables them to fulfil these needs.
“Our values must be met either in our professional life or [in] our personal life,” says Jackson.
“If you don't get fulfilment in either place, that's when a person feels dissatisfaction, that something is missing.”
Profit with purpose
It isn’t only individuals who seek a sense of purpose – many organisations have turned their gaze inwards and asked why they exist.
In November 2021, as part of its commitment to being a purpose-led company, KPMG Australia appointed its first chief purpose officer, Richard Boele, a long-time human rights campaigner.
“The chief purpose officer is tasked with challenging the board and partnership on the decisions that are made and ensure they are aligned with our purpose and values,” Boele said at the time of his appointment.
With investors increasingly holding companies accountable for environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, Preston believes that making sense of this data and meeting compliance requirements will be a huge growth area for finance and accounting professionals, and is, of itself, purposeful work.
“There is a growing number of investors who want to pull this data apart and combine financial metrics with social metrics, such as a company's profitability relative to its carbon intensity,” says Preston.
Those looking for purpose at work could support their own organisation in becoming more purpose driven, he suggests.
“The purpose statements of large and mid-tier accounting firms are mixed – some are good, but others aren’t great. Ultimately, the senior partners and boards will make good decisions about this, so put the pressure on them for clarity.”
“If your purpose is to help others to grow and believe in themselves, and your function at work doesn’t provide that opportunity, look for ways to incorporate your values on a day-to-day basis,” suggests Jackson.