The Purpose Gap: why companies need to re-evaluate purpose to engage the younger workforce

Eduardo Plastino, Director at Cognizant Research, reflects on what companies can do to engage and retain a young workforce in the face of the ‘Great Resignation‘.

Over the last few years, the pandemic has added an additional layer of precarity to our modern age. Combined with this, increased cries for social justice and workplace equality have left the world of work evolving at rapid speed and in ways that nobody could have possibly imagined.

With the effects of the ‘Great Resignation’ continuing to reverberate across offices everywhere, it is no surprise that many employees have been questioning their life and career decisions, leaving business leaders and employers anxious and perplexed as to what they ought to be doing to maintain their competitive edge while filling talent gaps.

The proposed solutions and initiatives to solving the ‘Great Resignation’ have included everything from improving workplace benefits to offering permanent hybrid work packages.

However, what is seldom discussed within these propositions is the fact that Gen Z and Millennials (20 to 40 year-olds) expect to have a greater purpose in their work that aligns with their personal values. In short, there is a ‘purpose gap’ within the workplace and it needs to be addressed if we are to remain a leading nation in business.

In fact, the latest report from Cognizant Research, ‘The Purpose Gap’, reveals that fewer than one-in-five (18%) workers under the age of 40 strongly believe they are living their day-to-day purpose in their work life. As such, business leaders must examine their current efforts if they want to secure the best and brightest talent of the younger generations.

Bridging the gap between ‘work’ and ‘purpose’

Understanding the core of what ‘purpose’ means is integral for learning how to navigate the muddy waters of the ‘Great Resignation.’

What younger workers mean by purpose is twofold. While the majority of young employees claim that it’s ‘extremely’ or ‘very important’ for their employer to positively impact society, it is also vital for young people to work at an organisation that fuels their own personal sense of purpose. This dualistic approach to employee values is integral to understanding how to better support one’s staff.

When it comes to personal purpose, millennials and Gen Z workers are focused on the direct impact on their work and personal lives. According to the ‘Purpose Gap’ report, the top three traits they’d use to define purposeful work are feeling passionate about the work they do (59%), having a good work-life balance (53%) and getting paid well (49%).

This means that young people now look closely at the pledges businesses are making and carefully evaluate whether these align with their individual needs and career goals.

This is a stark difference from the way businesses operated decades ago, as social purpose can no longer be considered as an afterthought or an embellishment to an already successful business. As such, business leaders must be continuously doing more to show their dedication to their employees, and the values they hold dear.

Understanding changing workplace priorities for young people

If the ‘Great Resignation’ has taught business leaders anything, it is that workplace priorities have changed dramatically.

What the ‘Purpose Gap’ report makes clear is that the age of micromanagement is dead. Young employees will not gain the purposeful and socially-charged employment they deserve if they do not have a healthy work-life balance to base it on. Setting clear boundaries at work is one important way that young employees are attempting to achieve their highest personal priorities of finding fulfilment through their work.

However, this cannot be achieved if they are constantly monitored on what they do and how they do it. As a result, alongside these changing employee values is a significant upswing in employee autonomy, which in turn leads to increased worker satisfaction, creativity and productivity. In short, they are less likely to quit and leave HRs scrambling to fill these talent gaps if they feel empowered in their jobs, trusted by their managers, and engaged by their work.

Cultivating a transparent and flexible senior leadership team

The long-term direction of a business is only as strong as the people at the helm. To combat the effects of the ‘Great Resignation,’ it is important that the makeup of an organisation’s senior leadership team genuinely reflects the values that the company stands for.

For instance, when asked to identify the leadership traits that matter most to them for supporting their sense of purpose, respondents from the ‘Purpose Gap’ report identified flexibility (42%), honesty (39%) and work competence (35%) as the top three. It is critical that when hiring employees at senior leadership level, they are able to demonstrate these qualities, while having a profound understanding of the changing dynamics that affect the work and personal lives of their younger colleagues.

These efforts must be complemented by a clear internal communications strategy. Shockingly, almost one-third of respondents from the ‘Purpose Gap’ report stated they had no idea whether their employer had a long-term plan to become carbon neutral. Poor intra-communication undermines the values of a business – creating a disconnect between employees and employers.

A symbiotic relationship between purpose and business

Ultimately, businesses do not exist in a vacuum as they are inextricably linked to the societies in which they are a part of. As such, it becomes more important than ever for any organisation to understand the changing social attitudes of young people and reflect these values within the workplace moving forward. Just as social values and needs evolve, so will workers’ purposes.

Business leaders that seek to be at the forefront of this change will recognise the importance of these workplace trends and continue to remain active in supporting the ever-changing demands of their employees today and in the future.

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