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People Who Quit Quietly Look in the Wrong Place for Meaningful Work

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If you expect your work to give meaning to your life, you are setting yourself up for failure. There was a time when a job was just an economic transaction: someone paid you for your work and that allowed you to live and support your family. But for a variety of reasons, many workers today expect more. They want purpose and meaning in their work. And if they can’t find it, some quit their jobs or make minimal effort for their salary.

It’s a costly mistake, although I understand why it’s tempting. I love my job and find it incredibly rewarding. I wish the same for everyone else. But I haven’t always found my work particularly meaningful. Job satisfaction is not easy; it’s something you achieve over time as you gain skill and status in your field.

If you’re looking for a job, my best advice is to just go for the money – or the chance to learn something new, or the work-life balance you need – and avoid any employer who touts a mission or promises to give meaning to your life. Such promises lead to disappointment, more than anything. If that feels loose, the best solution is to adjust your definition of what you find meaningful.

Employers have been forced to compete for workers as recent labor shortages have worsened. To facilitate their recruitment, several consulting firms have surveyed workers to find out what they are looking for in a job. And these surveys show that it’s not about the money; today’s workers are looking for more meaning. A survey found workers would take a 23% pay cut for work they find meaningful.

There are many different ways people define the “meaning” of their work, but one popular answer is work that serves a higher purpose. Unsurprisingly, the need is most pronounced among young people, some of whom have begun boasting on social media of “quietly quitting”, i.e. shying away from jobs they do not deem worthy of further effort. Outgoing Whole Foods CEO John Mackey recently complained that young people aren’t working as hard because they demand meaningful jobs before they’ve won them.

This perceived “lack of meaning” is not because today’s younger generation is more idealistic than its predecessors, but because early-career jobs involve a lot of backbreaking work that often feels pointless. Developing skills can be an unpleasant process, full of boring tasks necessary to gain mastery, and with inevitable failures that are sometimes frustrating and humiliating. It’s hard to find meaning when you’re incessantly drinking coffee or spending the night obsessing over the font of someone else’s PowerPoint presentation. But that’s how you learn skills like customer service, time management, and workplace culture negotiation.

The first jobs are therefore not so different. What may have changed is the expectation that every job is meant to be meaningful in some particular world-saving way.

These new expectations reflect a world that has changed, especially recently. Working from home means less time chatting with colleagues, which leaves more time to ponder the point of it all. Work is also less meaningful if you don’t feel like part of a team because you don’t see yourself helping your colleagues. A tight job market also means people can be a bit pickier about the work they choose to do.

There are also bigger cultural shifts that have been in the works for decades. MBAs don’t want to be Gordon Gekko anymore, they want to be Bill Gates (at least, during his philanthropy phase). Many tech companies promise workers a mission to make the world a better place, and it sounds compelling. And across the country, many people are less connected to their communities or their churches, and now their work needs to fill that void.

It’s not just economically inefficient; jobs with lofty missions and promises of spiritual fulfillment often lead to frustration. In fact, a large part of job satisfaction comes from feeling that there is a path to advancement. This is one of the reasons why the military (where maintaining morale is especially critical) has such rigid and clear paths. If you work in a company where the mission generates profits, the steps to take to progress are clear.

When the mission is more vague, advancement becomes more arbitrary, and this can kill morale. Take online shoe store Zappos, which once promised to deliver a purpose – to be the kind of place you’d even work for free. Eventually, the culture became toxic because employees had no idea what success meant or what they needed to do to progress.

Consider this: While McKinsey’s survey found that workers want to find meaning in their work, the industry with one of the highest attrition rates is nonprofits.

Employers have to make tough choices to stay in business. This may mean working with a client who doesn’t meet your moral standards or avoiding controversial political issues. This may mean moving some jobs overseas where labor is cheaper. These choices are understandable when the mission is lucrative. But if the mission is to make the world a better place, each employee will have different ideas about what’s acceptable (especially if you’re taking less money and working really long hours serving that mission). Then it’s hard not to take everything personally, which leads to a much more toxic culture.

Most of us spend a large part of our life at work. It is important to have a goal and to be motivated by what we do. But what few people will tell you is that meaning does not come from a mission to change the world. People feel valuable when they can apply their skills to solve problems. Sometimes this satisfaction comes from solving the big problems of the world, but more often it conquers the smaller ones. People who report high levels of job satisfaction often don’t work at cool startups or NGOs — you’ll find them in all kinds of jobs, like driving trucks. They do their job well, apply their skills and get paid accordingly — it’s not complicated.

All jobs have meaning. If someone pays you to do something, it has value. And if a craving for a job with a big purpose that will give your life meaning prevents you from working hard or staying in a job long enough to develop skills, not only will you make less money, but you won’t find never what you are looking for. .

More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

Future remote workers need to network more at university: Conor Sen

Millennials having less fun than anyone else: Justin Fox

ESG means buy no more coke in the world: Allison Schrager

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Allison Schrager is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the economy. A senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, she is the author of “An Economist Walks Into a Brothel: And Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk”.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion