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Meaning Is the New Money? Really?

News is, by definition, what's new in the world, so it's no shock that journalists keen to fill column inches or post quotas get excited whenever there's even the slightest suggestion of something fresh to write about. Need an example? Just think Gen Y.

The influx of a new cohort into the workforce is a great reason to churn out articles and reports on what's changed. (This blog included, of course.) Take the work of the Career Advisory Board, a panel of career experts sponsored by DeVry University, which just came out with a new white paper on the careers of Gen Y, aka the Millennials. Alexandra Levit, a member of the board, used her blog to report that the panel's research,

demonstrated that young professionals have a new definition of success, but that hiring managers don't see a substantial change. For a successful career, doing work that is personally meaningful and achieving a sense of accomplishment are just as important to Millennials as earning a high salary, but Millennial managers still perceive compensation as being the primary motivator for their younger employees.
It's not just the Career Advisory Board and Levit who claim meaning is more important than money these days. Tammy Erickson is also conducting research into motivation and next gen careers (those focused on creativity and collaboration) and recently laid out some of her findings on her HBR blog:
My research has clearly shown that high levels of engagement, and the associated discretionary effort, occur when our work experiences reflect a clear set of values that we share. For many today, meaning is the new money. It's what people are looking for at work. Clear company values, translated into the day-to-day work experience, are one of the strongest drivers of an engaged workforce, one primed for successful collaboration.
It's hard to argue that people don't prefer meaningful jobs, but these snippets of research generate a lot of questions too. First off, how were people's preferences gauged? People often say they care about intangibles like meaning and reputation and then in practice focus largely on that old standby, money.

Second, level of concern about money is likely to be contingent on circumstances. With Gen Y delaying adulthood and putting off expensive responsibilities like home ownership and kids -- and a huge percentage returning to their parents' homes after college -- it's no wonder they can focus more on meaning than a big paycheck. If money is just covering your student loan interest and bar tab, of course it won't be a huge motivator. Later when it's paying for your kids' education, money, quite rightfully, is more important.

Finally, Erickson's point that, for the networked, creative work of the future, money is less motivating, makes sense, but I also wonder what percentage of people will actually end up doing the big-thinking, collaborative sort of work that demands internal drive. Certainly, technology will replace much busywork, but it seems hard to believe that a huge proportion of the workforce is inclined (or even equipped by their education or temperament) to engage in this sort of work. Do we really think everyone who will be a designer or a network builder in the future?

All in all, I'm pretty skeptical that the "news" of the next generation's preference for meaning over money is really much of a story. Do you think that, in the future, the intrinsic meaning of work, rather than the satisfaction we get from contributing and supporting our families, is going to drive most employees?

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user aresauburnâ„¢, CC 2.0)
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