Your job may not be bad enough to make you want to burn down the building, but if you're like most Americans, it isn't exactly filling you with joy to head to work every day. That's because for more than half of U.S. workers (52 percent), misalignment of their purpose and their employer's purpose has them looking for a new job.
More and more, we want to feel a sense that our work matters, not just to us and our bank accounts, but to the world at large. And especially if you head to a cubicle and punch keys on a computer day in and day out, it's easy to understand how a lack of purpose could make you feel like you're simply wasting your life.
Particularly for the much-maligned millennial generation, who now make up the single largest segment of the American workforce, the struggle to find a career with purpose is real. But having a job that matters doesn’t have to mean casting off all material possessions and taking a vow of poverty.
Here are a few ways you can create a purpose-driven work life.
Grow where you're planted
The first step in creating a career with purpose is to look around you. It might seem impossible that you could change the culture where you work now, but remember, that culture didn’t just appear one day. People created it, and people keep it going. So maybe you can use your position to push the company in a better direction.
You know your company best, so your mileage may vary, but here are a few ideas:
- Connect employees with the benefit they provide to customers. For instance, invite community members to participate in focus groups to talk about how the products and services your company provides make their lives better and how the company might improve.
- Fight against unnecessarily strict command structures. Encourage coworkers who might be at levels below yours in that structure to offer their ideas, and amplify those voices.
- Particularly for members of privileged groups, call out speech and actions that reinforce stereotypes and oppressive behaviors.
- Organize groups of employees to provide free labor to local schools or charities. Many public school systems in this country are starved for funding, so even if you don’t have the resources to, say, plant a bunch of new trees, you could help clean the grounds after a football game or give teachers a hand in setting up their classrooms before the start of a new term.
For-profit companies are around for that explicit purpose – to make a profit. But there's no reason why even the most commercially successful companies can't also contribute in deeply meaningful ways in their communities.
Get a new job
When improving the culture at your current employer isn't feasible, it may be time to look for a new job. Depending on where your specific interests and talents lie, here are the best options to consider:
- Nonprofits/advocacy groups: The quickest way to work toward a broader objective you care deeply about is to join an organization that's already doing that. Nonprofits often get a bad rap when it comes to salaries, but according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2016 (the most recent year for which comprehensive data is available), the average annual salary for employees across all sectors of the nonprofit world was more than $40,000, roughly on par with other workers.
- Education: You need not be a teacher to find a meaningful career in the education space. Enrollment is expected to continue rising at virtually all levels of education, from elementary school to the university level, so jobs in education have a healthy outlook.
- Government agencies: From work with your local city or town government to jobs in Washington, D.C., many public sector workers find a great deal of satisfaction in being of service to their fellow citizens. And these jobs often are relatively lucrative. In local government jobs (outside of hospitals or schools), the average annual salary is more than $52,000.
- Military: While most jobs within the branches of the military are held by members of the armed forces, many roles are filled by civilians. For those who are enlisted, a strict pay structure helps to ensure that the longer you serve your country, the more money you'll make.
- Law enforcement: As with military roles, most positions within law enforcement are held by sworn officers, but other jobs, such as crime scene investigators or dispatchers, can be filled by those who aren’t police.
- Medicine and healthcare: One of the most rapidly growing sectors of the economy, jobs in medicine run the gamut from doctors, nurses and dentists to athletic trainers, dental hygienists and home health aides. In many roles, you'll deal directly with people, helping them in what's possibly their time of greatest need.
- Religious organizations: Few beliefs are as deeply held as one's faith, so a job helping bring others to that faith is incredibly appealing for many people, and the good news is one need not be a member of the clergy to find a satisfying role. After all, even churches need tech support.
- Counseling and social work: Depending on your state and your potential employer, many jobs in social work and counseling require specialized degrees and certifications. However, with rapid growth in these jobs, an investment now may pay dividends later.
The world outside commercial businesses isn't all long hours and low pay. Make no mistake; many of them are, but that's OK, because all of these jobs and industries have a higher purpose in mind.
Go your own way
If all else fails (or maybe even as a first resort, depending on your tolerance for risk), start something new. Launching your own organization not only allows you to do things your way from a business standpoint, but it gives you a chance to create a purpose-driven culture from scratch.
Here are some crucial questions you'll need to ask yourself before you strike out on your own:
- What needs will we serve, both commercially and culturally? Are other organizations doing this in our community better than we could?
- What does success look like? When will we know we’re making a difference?
- How will we keep ourselves focused on our purpose? How will the communities or causes we’re helping be involved in that?
- How will our hiring and promotions policies ensure our employees feel empowered and fulfilled? (Remember, you’re starting this business because you are unsatisfied; you don’t want your employees to feel that way in a few years, do you?)
- What won’t we do to make a buck?
Just starting a business is a challenge, and most new companies don't last long. But that's all the more reason to make sure that if the life of your business is a short one, at least it should be a meaningful one.