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Gen X and Millennials and the power of purpose

Among the many generalisations applied to Millennials is their insistence upon having purpose in their work.

In the words of British-American leadership author, Simon Sinek, Millennials want “purpose, impact, free food and beanbags”. The last two items aside, Millennials’ desire for purpose in their work isn’t unique.

According to studies, we all work for the same thing – and it’s not just money. It’s meaning. Through our work, we seek a sense of purpose, contribution, connection, value, and hope.

In one study, management expert Dave Ulrich and psychologist Wendy Ulrich talked to thousands of people – from rank-and-file workers to top-level executives- and found that digging down to the meaning of work taps our resilience in hard times and our passion in good times.

The main difference between Gen X and Millennials when it comes to purpose then, is that the latter put their desire for purpose at the fore, and insist on it. Sometimes typecast as being narcissistic and entitled, the flip-side is that Millennials are clear about what they want from their work, and will show great dedication to work that makes them happy.

These more recent entrants to the workforce can challenge Gen Xers to stay true to their own values. Gen Xers have trail-blazed and often established clear mission statements, but the influence of Millennials constantly pushes them to live and breathe these standards. 

When I was navigating my corporate career in the 90s, my colleagues and I had no idea what the purpose or values of our workplace were, even though they existed in a document somewhere. Today, conversely, I have my business’ purpose and values visible for every member of the team to see. I want them to be repeatable, accessible and inspiring so that everyone who works with me feels energised by their contribution and aligned with the business goals. We refer to them regularly and feel deeply connected to our goals of helping organisations get more women into leadership roles.

Today’s leaders play a pivotal role in ensuring their company’s vision is communicated, understood and serves as a source of inspiration and purpose for workers.

Dave Ulrich illustrates this with the fable of the three bricklayers. When asked what they were doing, the first replied “I am laying bricks”; the second bricklayer said, “I am building a wall”, while the third answered, “I am building a great cathedral for God.” As such, leaders can help their team envision the ‘cathedral’ they are building.

One way leaders can make purpose explicit and memorable is to convey it through storytelling. They can, for example, share personal insights or anecdotes that illustrate how one person’s work contributes to the success of the broader business. Reinforce this message frequently to ensure it remains top of mind.

Be aware that this greater purpose needs to resonate with team members. Helping a company to make lots of money isn’t a purpose likely to inspire, so be aware of how much communication centers on revenue, versus the difference your organisation is making for its customers or community at large. The former can dominate internal meetings and presentations, but make sure this is balanced out with an equal, or greater, emphasis on non-monetary factors. 

With Millennials to make up 75 per cent of all employees globally by 2025, attracting and retaining top talent will depend, to a significant degree, on how well an organisation’s leaders communicate their purpose, and how thoroughly employees are able to understand and identify with it.

Along with motivating employees individually, working towards a larger common goal can also help to unify a team, serving as a cohesive force with the power to outweigh personal differences and cut through the Gen X – Millennial divide.