5 thoughts for new college grads seeking to find the right balance between meaningful work and makin

A philosopher and a psychologist break down the challenges of finding purposeful work that also pays well.

By Christopher Wong Michaelson Published on May 15, 2024.

The Class of 2024 had a college experience like no other, starting its first year during peak pandemic and graduating amid protests of the war in Gaza. Many of its graduates will be joining a working world that holds their future in its hands and that was transformed by technological advancements and changing attitudes about work while they were in school. What can they expect from the world of work today?

As a philosopher and a psychologist who began our careers in management consulting – and now teach ethics and leadership and study why people work – we have five thoughts for new college graduates to consider as they head out into the “real world.”

1. The good news: Overall, people are satisfied at work

The 2024 report from The Conference Board, a nonprofit organization that studies workforce and other trends, shows that almost two-thirds of employees report being satisfied with their jobs. Overall satisfaction at work is at its highest point since the survey started in 1987, rising every year since the pandemic, although women report far lower satisfaction than men.

The factors influencing satisfaction increases have included flexibility and work-life balance, especially among employees who have remained with their employers for more than three years. This suggests that some of the changes in work location and hours implemented by employers during COVID-19 are still valued higher than simply switching gigs for a better deal.

Employees still want COVID-19-era levels of autonomy, for example prioritizing Wednesdays over Fridays in the office. Facing a shortage of workers, some employers are seeking to deliver such perks to keep them.

2. The bad news: Employees are not engaged

A man appears to daydream while seated at a desk filled with stacks of paper.
Many employees are doing just enough to get by. Erik Von Weber via Getty Images

Despite this record-level satisfaction, work engagement is at a 10-year low, continuing a downward trend. Employees may be compensating for a pandemic that led many people to work more hours, with at least half seeking to “quiet quit” – that is, doing the bare minimum required in their job descriptions and leaving work at work at the end of the day. Workers who are not engaged are not necessarily working fewer hours overall, but they may be less willing to bring their work home with them, literally or figuratively, or even to give their best effort during regular working hours.

Employers, meanwhile – recognizing that engaged employees generally perform better – are stuck paying more for satisfied employees who produce less. In a real-life game of “Would You Rather…?” workers should consider how they would prefer to spend the largest portion of their waking hours: being satisfied or engaged?

3. Seeking work with a purpose is a noble and understandable goal

Today’s graduates are famously considered part of the “Purpose Generation,” committed to solving the problems that prior generations have created.

Studies show that workers just entering the labor market care a lot about making a difference through their work. We have studied what it means when people view their work as a calling or have a sense that work is meaningful, all-consuming and may make the world a better place. Those with a strong calling will be more engaged and satisfied with their work and will be happier in their lives as well.

Workers should think about what problem they most want to solve, are best qualified to solve, and that they might be able to get paid to solve. There is a lot of talk about a future world without work, but the world today needs workers who are committed to a better future.

4. It is also understandable to care about money

As much as new entrants to the labor market care about meaningful work and life, data shows that they care even more about high pay and financial security. Material rewards have increased in importance over time, compared with the priorities of prior generations.

With the state of the world that graduates are entering, including soaring home prices, student debt and the threat of inflation, it is not only materially unsurprising but also morally justifiable that many workers are seeking financial stability. Although seeking money at the expense of other goals can take a toll on workers’ well-being, workers need to be cautious of employers who may attempt to exploit their passion for their work by paying less for more effort.

5. It is rare, but not impossible, to find meaningful work that pays

A woman in a red suit walks on steps that look like bars from a bar graph -- and a panoramic view of a city is in the background.
Finding purposeful work that pays is not impossible.

Although COVID led society to recognize the importance of “essential work,” such as health care and critical infrastructure, work that arguably does the most good in society, such as social service and education, is often paid the least.

Few graduates will find the perfect combination of meaning and money in the same job right out of college, but that does not mean that they cannot aspire to find both over the course of their careers – and, when they are in a position to do so someday, to pay their own employees what they are worth. As for the present, if new workforce entrants feel as though they must accept a lower than desired salary to do work that benefits society, it cannot hurt for them to ask for what they think they deserve.

Even meaningful work can lose its luster when workers feel underappreciated. At its best, however, work can make a meaningful contribution to the lives of workers and a world in need of repair.

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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