Work with(out) purpose?

August 24, 2021

New needs, new demands and new realities: that’s work(ing) amidst continually changing times. Factors such as digitalization and automation — along with a generational change and an accompanying shift of values — are all combining to establish a new working world. Alongside New Work practices, there’s a particular word popping up in many discussions: purpose. Yet, what exactly are we looking for when we’re searching for purpose in our work? Moreover, how are purpose-driven companies distinguishing themselves from other businesses?

The purpose economy — for meaningful work?

Entrepreneur Aaron Hurst came up with the term purpose economy. He uses it to describe the way that work is changing and the growing desire of workers to accomplish more socially meaningful aims within their work. As Hurst stated in a 2018 interview: “People don’t go to work just to get a paycheck; they want to feel what they are doing matters to the world and that they are growing in the job.” When we mention purpose, we’re striving to find meaningfulness in our life  — and in our work.  It’s no longer about just going to work to earn money, our work should provide us fulfilment through its meaningfulness. This might lead to more happiness overall, as University of Utah professor emeritus Arthur Brief concluded: “If you realize meaning in your work, you tend to be more satisfied in your life.” 

“Why?” questions can be helpful for discovering a sense of purpose in our own jobs and tasks. Why am I doing my job? Why is this task important for my job, why is my job important for my company? Once we’ve answered these questions, we can begin to gain a sense of purpose from our work.

What defines a purpose-driven company? 

It’s not only employees who have meaningfulness on their minds, but also the companies they work for. For businesses, it’s about identifying the organization’s sense and purpose. According to Hurst’s purpose economy theory, a company can only achieve long-term success if a sense of social responsibility exists within the company. Danny Rimer, a partner at Index Ventures, commented on the new generation’s consumer habits as follows: “Millennials expect a social commitment and are looking for businesses that have social responsibility." The company’s purpose is therefore not only important for winning over customers, but also for maintaining long-term loyalty among staff and solid relationships with investors. Hurst identified the following three types of purpose-driven companies:  

1. “Value-driven” companies: Values are at the forefront, all decisions are made with careful consideration of upholding the company’s values. Value-driven companies, such as Ben & Jerry’s, ask themselves what they need to change, they examine the ideologies they are embracing and ensure that they are conducting themselves accordingly. 

2. “Excellence-driven” companies: A focus on high-quality work is a defining principle for these companies. They are concerned with improving themselves and setting new standards of quality for themselves to reach. Apple can be viewed as a prime example.  

3. “Impact-driven” companies: Impact-driven companies actively assume responsibility for how their actions affect their stakeholders while optimizing their influence in a beneficial manner for all concerned. They examine their impact and how they can use their influence responsibly, as demonstrated by the outdoor clothing company Patagonia.  

Can work also “work” without purpose?

Yes and no. It’s certainly “better late than never” for companies to become aware of their overall social accountability and to act with purpose. The feeling of accomplishing something meaningful is undoubtedly important for us as human beings, too. However, that doesn’t mean that we have to find our purpose in wage employment. Even now, when it’s trendy to pursue purpose through our work to give something back to society, a job without purpose is still okay. Not everyone has the option of choosing a job with purpose, and in the end, a paid job is still a paid job, with or without purpose. It’s not necessary for your own sense of purpose to be found within or created by your working situation.  It’s entirely okay to work for a wage — and to discover your purpose elsewhere.