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Purpose or Progress: Why Some Employees Feel Forced to Choose

You don’t have to look far to find blogs, articles and editorials telling you that modern, and especially millennial employees no longer prioritise salary, job title or simple progression when making career decisions.


Instead, employees cite factors such as flexibility, work-life balance, a health and well-being culture, and a sense of purpose as vital components of rewarding employment.

Regrettably, however, less than 9% of business owners think flexibility and salary increases are priorities for staff. However, a 2016 survey demonstrated that flexibility was the important factor, according to 84% of respondents, with a good work-life balance the next most important.

The Progress Trap: When Career Decisions Are Made Elsewhere

It may be surprising, therefore, that a recent Guardian article reported that only 30% of millennials are making career decisions based on factors other than salary and job title. The article suggests it takes time and experience understand what kind of work provides a sense of purpose.

It seems more likely that millennial employees are choosing progress over purpose, against their own stated desires, because they exist within an economy and job market that gives them no other option. Millennials face the cost of living increasing faster than wages, university debt spiralling, decreased job security and the rise of short-term and zero-hours contracts, while home ownership becomes a pipe dream.

It doesn’t take a psychologist to surmise that individuals feeling forced to make decisions that conflict with their values will feel trapped and unhappy. Nor should it surprise any business leaders that unhappy employees lead to bad business outcomes.

Creating a Sense of Purpose in Employment

What is the solution? It seems simple enough. Offer employees a sense of purpose in their work. In practice, this means praising good work, showing gratitude for hard work, sharing with employees the impact that their work has on the wider business. If your workforce feel strongly about an issue like, for example, sustainability, consider adopting employee values as company values.

Another important step employers can take involves setting up employee wellness programs that promote health and well-being. These programs can result in beneficial business outcomes, but their real value lies in taking an interested in employees beyond the strictures of their specific role and output within the company. Caring about employees is one thing. Showing that you care is another.

A word of warning, however: each of these directives, if enacted, need to be sincere and upheld by HR departments and senior managers. Employees can tell the difference between real and tokenistic gestures. There is a risk that a half-baked attempt will do more damage than no attempt at all.

Have you ever felt like you had to choose between purpose and progress? Let us know in the comments.