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Profit Can Be Your Purpose

Profit Can Be Your Purpose

March 15, 2024

Why do Millennials and Gen Zers want their work to provide psychic rewards?

More than half of recent college graduates are in jobs that don’t require their degrees, the Journal reported recently. I think that’s on “purpose.” It isn’t about work anymore—work now requires meaning, purpose. Many under 35 seem to need their careers to provide psychic rewards for them to get out of bed every morning. Give me a break.

A McKinsey study shows that 70% of employees said “their sense of purpose is defined by their work” and that “employers need to help meet this need.” Really? Don’t employers provide paychecks? A McKinsey partner noted that “millennials, even more so, are likely to see their work as their life calling.” PwC even has a chief purpose and inclusion officer. We need a generational intervention.

Looking for work now is about finding your passion. My true passion was to bat cleanup for the St. Louis Cardinals. Oh well. Instead, I found a job where I could learn something and eventually contribute. I know, so old-fashioned.

Companies today need to be “mission oriented.” That mission could be at cross-purposes with reality, no matter how good it sounds. Watch the Netflix docuseries “Big Vape: The Rise and Fall of Juul.” Employees were gleeful to work for a company whose mission is to “improve the lives of the world’s one billion adult smokers by eliminating cigarettes.” Spoiler: It didn’t end well. Juul ended up introducing youngsters to nicotine and addicting many who never smoked. After the company blew up, an employee wrote, “Looking for new opportunities out there with companies that actually care about their employees and are truly mission-focused. The work environment here is truly toxic.” Truly! 

Then there’s the “authentic self” and “bring your whole self to work” thing. As opposed to half? Or someone else’s self? Mike Robbins, who wrote the book “Bring Your Whole Self to Work,” suggests we “allow ourselves to be truly seen.” Truly! In December 2021, Roz Brewer, CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance, told Harvard Business Review that bringing her whole self to work was a key to her success. In August 2023, she stepped down as CEO of the debt-laden, overstretched firm.

Motivational speaker Tony Robbins suggests you develop “a life vision statement.” In a hurry? Copy someone else’s Pinterest vision board. Others talk about “living intentionally,” which digital coaching platform BetterUp defines as “making choices based on your personal values, beliefs, and goals.” Choices? 

Heck, no one can decide what to do anymore. I often hear about “menu anxiety” and “decision fatigue.” Even the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine suggests we face “a psychological condition of ‘systemic uncertainty.’ ” But life requires decisions.

Last year the Harvard Business Review said that Generation Z is “a purpose- driven generation” and has “disillusionment with the establishment and capitalism.” Maybe stop paying them and see how long that lasts. A 2021 Gallup poll said that on Gen Z (those born 1997-2012) and Millennial (1981-96) wish lists were employers who care about their well-being and are ethical, open, diverse and inclusive. Nothing about learning or progress. I recently had lunch with a successful three-time Silicon Valley CEO. She joked that “if I had to manage Gen Zers, I think I’d kill myself.”

I often hear Gen Zers say “this is my journey.” Well, if that’s your journey, you didn’t get very far. According to the Journal, more than half of those under 25 live at home and 60% of 18- to 34-year-olds receive financial assistance from their parents. As an empty nester, I’ve got it down to the impossible-to-ditch cellphone bill. Any advice?

Help is on the way. The Muse, which labels itself “the first values-based career platform,” writes of “4 ways to find purpose in any job.” Do tell. First, “dial up the texture of experience.” Very touchy-feely and, to me, meaningless. Next, “know what fuels you.” Sandwiches with the crusts cut off? Third, “Leave a room better than when you found it.” A sanitation mission? And finally, “consider a simpler legacy,” which I read as: Forget all this purpose nonsense and get a real job that provides valuable goods or services to customers. Only half seem to get this and will [have to] carry the other half.

How you live your life is up to you. If you want a purpose or mission, by all means, go work for a nonprofit. But for-profit companies have scale and a much bigger impact on society. They end hunger, provide shelter, educate workers and invent the future. Their profits measure success in delighting customers. Profits are purpose, though saying that to those who don’t understand capitalism is like sunlight to vampires. Providing what a customer needs is exactly what contributes to the world’s well-being and creates societal wealth. Be warned: Things like “purpose” usually get thrown to the curb when layoffs accelerate into recessions. In the meantime, enjoy your journey. 

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Appeared in the March 4, 2024, Wall Street Journal print edition as 'Profit Can Be Your Purpose'. Inside View is an insider’s look at what makes Silicon Valley and Wall Street tick and a perspective on technology and markets, especially where they intersect with culture. It runs weekly on Mondays.  Write to kessler@wsj.com.