Jobs and the Future of Work

Yes, millennials want a job with purpose. But they also want a decent paycheck

People work at the office of food-finder app Lozi in Hanoi, Vietnam, April 7, 2016. Vietnam's tech startups are emerging as a force to be reckoned with as foreign private equity funds bet the country's talented young brains will yield more successes. REUTERS/Kham - RTX29OJ3

A sense of purpose is nice, but even millennials have bills to pay Image: REUTERS/Kham

Peter Vanham
Previously, Deputy Head of Media at World Economic Forum. Executive Editor, Fortune
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Millennials want purpose over paychecks, and seek to balance that with success. They look for opportunities to learn and grow. And in response, companies are adapting so they can better work with this generation.

This is the well-known narrative about millennials, the generation born in the 1980s and 1990s. You can read about it on the BBC, the Harvard Business Review, Forbes or The Guardian. But as a recent World Economic Forum survey shows, the narrative could be a mischaracterization for many millennials.

The reason is that around the world, millennials, just as perhaps many generations before them, still care about making money first, and career advancement second. Purpose, or having impact on society, is a quite distant third.

Or to share that same message in numbers: 54% of surveyed millennials consider financial compensation one of the three most important criteria when considering a job, compared to 45% who value career advancement the most, and 37% who think having a sense of purpose is the most important factor.

Why, then, do we get that message wrong? The most obvious answer is that there is no such thing as a “global generation”. Yes, climate change is a defining challenge of our time, shared by people all over the world. And yes, young people the world over may well have seen more of the world than any other generation if for no other reason that they prefer to gather experiences rather than material things.

But in the end, millennials are different everywhere. Or more precisely: millennials in North America are different from millennials in any other part of the world. Indeed, when you drill down into the data, a remarkable dichotomy appears.

In every region of the world except North America, the majority of young people see salary as one of the most important factors in a job. The reverse finding is true for “sense of purpose”. That matters for more than half of North American respondents, but for less than half of respondents from any other region of the world.


It raises another question: why is this the case? I had the chance to discuss those findings with two Shapers who participated in the study, Naadiya Moosajee from South Africa, and Ali Khan, an American living in Dubai, and they offered intriguing answers.

“Sometimes in developing markets, there’s not that luxury to follow the Western narrative where you have to be happy and love what you do,” said Moosajee. “Often there’s an expectation that you provide not just for your family, but for your community.” In may be one important reason, she said, that millennials elsewhere in the world look for a higher salary.

Related to that, she said, was the pressure that comes along with getting schooled. Education is an important virtue in many countries, and one that is vigorously set forth by many parents. But when people send their children to schools, they will for that reason often overplay their hand, choosing highly reputed institutions that are scarcely affordable. The consequence is that school leavers afterwards are confronted with huge pressure to give their family a return on investment.

Finally, we talked about the role gender differences might play. Women are akin to seek more purpose in their job, Moosajee said, but in many parts of the world remain underrepresented in the workforce: barely half of women worldwide are active in the labour force, compared to more than three-quarters of men, according to estimates from the ILO and the World Bank.

In the US, as in handful of other major markets, female participation in the labour force is much higher, at more than 60%. It wasn’t always that way: most American women born before the second world war (59%) didn't work when they were young adults, and 42% were either unemployed or not in the workforce. But for millennial women, the numbers have almost completely reversed: 63% are employed, and 3% are unemployed or out of the labour force, Bloomberg recently wrote.

There may be other explanative factors, of course, and the relative priorities revealed in the Shaper survey only tell us so much. But if we want to paint a correct picture of millennials and their characteristics, we may do well to go beyond the stereotypes from North America.

You can find the full Global Shaper survey results here, and the press release mentioning the salary vs. purpose preferences here.

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