The Rising Tide of Purpose

Posted by Paull Young | Posted in Business, Life | Posted on 19-02-2014

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As a brand guy deep within the social good vortex the biggest trend I’m seeing that is largely ignored is the desire from the brightest lights of my generation to live a life of purpose: especially in their job.

I’ve got a lot of banker mates, but I’m constantly meeting amazing young people who don’t care about living a life to generate profit alone, and don’t want to work for a stifling big company. I’d include myself on this list.

Put simply, I think the next challenge for some of the biggest companies in the world – your Goldman Sachs, IBMs and General Electrics – is great young people aren’t going to want to lose their youth trapped in a bureaucracy that gives them little chance of making a personal impact on the world.

It came home to me in this post Atlantic post, ‘The Woes of Young Bankers‘, where the Author outlines a significant factor he identified for why the  young bankers on Wall St are ‘so miserable': a lack of purpose.

3. Purpose

It might sound strange, but many young people come to Wall Street expecting to make the world a better place. This is partly the fault of recruiters, who tempt college juniors and seniors with promises of “real-world responsibility” and rhapsodies about socially responsible investing. But it’s also wishful thinking on the recruits’ part. Jeremy, for instance, had arrived at Goldman thinking that his specific job—trading commodities derivatives—could make the world a teensy bit better by allowing large companies to hedge their costs, and pass savings along to customers. But one day, his boss pulled him aside and told him that, in effect, he’d been naïve.

“We’re not here to save the world,” the boss said. “We exist to make money.”

The British economist Roger Bootle has written about the difference between “creative” and “distributive” work. Creative work, Bootle says, is work that brings something new into the world that adds to the total available to everyone (a doctor treating patients, an artist making sculptures). Distributive work, on the other hand, only carries the possibility of beating out competitors and winning a bigger share of a fixed-size market. Bootle explains that although many jobs in modern society consist of distributive work, there is something intrinsically happier about a society that skews in favor of the creative.

“There are some people who may derive active delight from the knowledge that their working life is devoted to making sure that someone else loses, but most people do not function that way,” he writes. “They like to have a sense of worth, and that sense usually comes from the belief that they are contributing to society.”

During my interviews with young bankers, I heard a lot of them express this exact sentiment. They wanted to do something, make something, add something to the world, instead of simply serving as well-paid financial intermediaries at giant investment banks. It doesn’t hurt that creative jobs—including, but not limited to, jobs with Silicon Valley tech companies—are now considered sexier and more socially acceptable than Wall Street jobs, which still carry the stigma of the financial crisis. At one point, during the Occupy Wall Street protests, Jeremy told me that he had begun camouflaging his Goldman affiliation in public.

“I lie whenever I go out now,” he told me. “I tell people I’m a consultant, a lawyer, whatever—anything but a Wall Street guy.”

Comments (3)

Hi Paull,

I completely agree with the want to live a life of purpose and the desire to have a job that helps you fulfill that. From what I’ve seen it’s even more potent than that though. For instance, I work in the Boston startup scene and I’m surrounded by people who are passionate about their jobs – they love their work, become close friends with their colleagues and thrive in collaborative environments.

But what I’ve seen, and experience myself, is that people start to look for bigger impact shifts that they can bring to their organization – whether it’s engaging in community events, supporting a charity, starting a charity, or even something as small as enforcing a recycling policy.

It’s completely refreshing to see a mix of passions coming into the working world and the line between work and life becoming more and more blurred. As startups become fervent and the culture of companies more important, I hope to see a shift in the stereotypical “corporate” world to embrace change and value a collective good.

Great read – thanks for sharing!
Caroline

So well put. Thanks for an amazing read and helping put into words how I and so many others in our generation feel!

“It doesn’t hurt that creative jobs—including, but not limited to, jobs with Silicon Valley tech companies—are now considered sexier and more socially acceptable than Wall Street jobs…”

Way to pander to your monied constituency.

Would you have every 20 year old go work at a nonprofit? What about the necessary LABORERS that our society depends on? The man who picks up your trash, the woman who processes your visa at the immigration office, the gentleman who drives a truck carrying your new rugby gear into Manhattan? Do those jobs–indeed those people–have no place in the Millenial idealized (and indeed, entitled) view of what it means to do good work?

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