Ikigai: The Importance of Purpose in the Intergenerational Workplace

There is a lot of buzz right now about millennials’ desire for “purpose” in their work. The truth, however, is that a desire for meaning is remarkably intergenerational.

Strikingly, the 2016 Global Purpose Index found that 48 percent of Baby Boomers and 38 percent of Gen Xers were purpose-driven, compared to 30 percent of millennials.

The importance of purpose is also, not surprisingly, a shared desire around the world. Recently I’ve been reading a lot about the Japanese concept of ikigai, a combination of the words “ikiru” which means “life,” and “kai,” translated as “the realization one hopes for.” The Japanese describe ikigai as “a reason to get up in the morning,” or…purpose.

When you zero in on what your purpose is, you’ll be surprised how things in your life can start to fall into place. When I first graduated from college and was floundering a bit, I told a career counselor that being an RA [Resident Advisor] was the best job I’d ever had and made me feel most “myself.” Imagine my surprise when she said, “Do that as a career.” Uh, ok, I thought. Too bad there are no “RA jobs” in the real world. “Nonsense,” she continued. “Start your own company. Be an RA for a group that needs it. Follow your purpose.”

Initially, I didn’t…I joined a dot.com startup, but when that failed (as was common in the 1990s), I revisited that career coach’s words. After some soul-searching, I realized that I could actually be an RA of sorts for new graduates and help them find their path. I started speaking to college student audiences and wrote my first book, Getting From College to Career.

Ask These Four Questions To Find Your Purpose

Are you wondering what your ikigai might be? According to an article from the World Economic Forum, experts advise that you begin by asking these four questions:

  1. What do you love?
  2. What are you good at?
  3. What does the world need from you?
  4. What can you get paid for?

The Incredible Power of Purpose in the Workplace

Purpose in work can run the gamut from feeling like you, personally, are making a difference to believing that your employer is.

One of my favorite recent examples of a purpose-driven workplace is KPMG. The firm created a Higher Purpose initiative that was designed to help employees see their role in making a positive impact. As part of the 10,000 Stories Challenge in 2015, they asked their workforce—27,000 strong at the time—to develop posters that celebrated their own purposeful work.

The results were phenomenal. First, more than 42,000 eventually responded with their own stories that became the backdrop of an advertising campaign. But it wasn’t window dressing; the initiative really moved the needle. The firm’s annual partner survey found that 90% of respondents reported that the higher purpose initiatives increased people’s pride in KPMG. Employee engagement scores hit 89 percent, and KPMG soared 17 spots on Fortune magazine’s annual “100 Best Companies to Work For” list.

The campaign didn’t create purpose at KPMG, but it brought attention to it in such a personal way to employees that the concept of purpose became part of the fabric of the firm, a cultural norm, something to be acknowledged and celebrated.

Purpose can’t be dictated by managers or demanded by employees. Companies have to create a culture that values purpose, and employees have to be open to finding purpose in everyday activities. It might not look like saving the world when you are helping a customer make an investment decision, but you are positively impacting her future retirement. Or purpose might look like ensuring a presentation is error-free so that your firm can grow with new clients, increasing your opportunities for advancement.

The best thing about purpose? It comes in endless forms, and is yours for the looking.

How does your workplace celebrate purpose? What can you do today to help bolster your own “ikigai?” I’d love to hear on Twitter or in the comments below.

Lindsey Pollak is the leading expert on millennials and the multigenerational workplace, trusted by global companies, universities and the world’s top media outlets. A New York Times bestselling author and keynote speaker, Lindsey began her career as a dorm RA in college and has been mentoring millennials — and explaining them to other generations — ever since. Her presentations have audiences so engaged that, in the words of one attendee, “I didn’t check my phone once!” Contact Lindsey to discuss a speaking engagement for your organization.

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