The unifying power of purpose across generations

Rachele Focardi, Founder of XYZ@Work, explores the post-pandemic impact of purpose on uniting generations and driving positive change.
By: | August 21, 2023

As someone who has spent the last 20 years helping organisations unleash the full power of their multigenerational workforce through appreciation, understanding and collaboration between generations, I was thrilled when I first saw the data from the XYZ@Work Post-Pandemic Workplace Study in the Spring of 2022.

The impact of COVID-19 has unequivocally bridged the gap between generations, as technology adoption, transformed leadership, prioritisation of well-being, workplace reimagining, the shift towards a growth mindset, and the profound understanding of our interconnectedness have united generations in unforeseen and remarkable ways.

But what particularly grabbed my attention was a finding linked to a topic that is quickly gaining prominence: Purpose. The study revealed a significant trend following the pandemic, with 45% of employees across generations feeling a strong need to realign their careers to a greater sense of purpose. I was intrigued. After all, purpose (or the perceived lack thereof) has long been a prominent factor contributing to intergenerational conflicts. The youngest generations inherently think of themselves as purpose-driven, while the older generations are seen as reluctant to change and less social minded. But after Covid, something changed. The “Quest for Purpose” was (re)ignited just as strongly in Baby Boomer and Gen X employees, along with a newfound desire to help enable purpose in their younger colleagues.

“Purpose emerged as the glue that can unite generations, inspire collaboration, and drive positive change.” – Rachele Focardi, Founder of XYZ@Work

Purpose emerged as the glue that can unite generations, inspire collaboration, and drive positive change. What was not clear, though, was whether generations were aligned on the definition of purpose in the first place. This is when I decided to launch a new study, the XYZ@Work 2023 Purpose Study, to understand how different generations define purpose, what social causes they feel most aligned to, and what organisations can do to enable their sense of purpose and help them find meaning in their work.

As a true testament to the big misunderstanding that unfortunately still exists between generations, 66% of employees believe that their generation defines purpose differently than other generations. Baby Boomers and Gen X feel mutually aligned but disconnected from Gen Z and Millennials, Gen Z feel aligned to Millennials, and Millennials feel misalignment with every generation except their own.

However, this perception that generations have completely different views on purpose is mostly untrue. In reality, they have a lot more in common when it comes to defining Purpose than they realise. And here are eight fresh findings to prove it!

  1. In the post-pandemic era, purpose has become a powerful force among different generations. Over half of Baby Boomers (52%), Gen X (57%), Millennials (63%), and Gen Z (59%) are craving a deeper sense of meaning. However, one in five employees – particularly Gen Z and Millennials – face a unique challenge in uncovering and expressing their purpose.
  2. 67% of employees (55% of Baby Boomers, 68% of Gen X, 70% of Millennials and 76% of Gen Z) are looking for a career change in the pursuit of flexibility, growth, and meaning. Helping others, making an impact, growth, fulfilment, recognition, and appreciation are what makes work feel meaningful for every generation.
  3. For 82% of employees across generations (71% of Baby Boomers, 79% of Gen X, 83% of Millennials, 88% of Gen Z) the opportunity to drive social impact has become a key factor when thinking about their ideal career or employer (particularly in South-East Asia). Climate action and good health and wellbeing are two of the top three causes that every generation feels most passionate about, along with quality education (Baby Boomers and Gen Z), zero hunger (Gen X), and gender equality (Millennials).
  4. Ethical consumerism is on the rise among all generations. 41% of Baby Boomers, 68% of Gen X, 58% of Millennials and 62% of Gen Z said they only buy products from brands that support issues they are passionate about. Similarly, 70% across generations said they would stop buying products from brands that do not share their same values or have unethical practices.
  5. While nine-in-ten employees emphasise the importance of having purpose at work, only a mere 26% feel capable of truly fulfilling their purpose through their current job. This is consistent across all generations.
  6. One-in-four employees across generations feel that their employer fails to support them in fulfilling their purpose at work due to toxic or money-driven cultures, misalignment in values, and limited opportunities. “Changing employers” is widely seen as the best way to be able to express purpose in a job, along with “reporting to a different boss” (Baby Boomers), “more commitment on the part of my organisation” (Baby Boomers and Millennials), “redirecting my career path” (Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z) “having a clearer idea of what my purpose is” (Gen X and Millennials), and “moving to a new role” (Baby Boomers and Gen Z).
  7. Across the board, the inability to choose projects aligned with their passions is a key factor contributing to employee dissatisfaction. Remarkably, four-in-five employees (76% of Baby Boomers, 82% of Gen X, 85% of Millennials, and 78% of Gen Z) are eager to pitch and/or work on meaningful projects that address causes they are passionate about, extending beyond their usual work responsibilities. This trend is particularly evident in South-East Asia.
  8. Employees across all generations unanimously agree that to show genuine commitment to driving impact beyond profitability, an organisation should focus on Employee Wellbeing, Corporate Citizenship, Ethics & Transparency, and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.

In summary, the study clearly shows that in today’s workforce, purpose has emerged as a powerful driving force across generations. Employees from all age groups unanimously agree on the significance of purpose, seeking meaningful work that offers flexibility and growth. Making a positive impact on society – particularly in areas such as climate action and education – resonates deeply with everyone.

However, many employees feel a disconnect between their purpose and the values upheld by their organisations. To effect real change, companies must prioritise employee well-being, ethics, diversity, and demonstrate an unwavering commitment to social causes. Survey respondents hailed leading organisations like Patagonia, Unilever, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Tesla as exemplars of purpose-driven success, while inspirational figures such as Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Nelson Mandela, and Jacinda Ardern serve as beacons of Purposeful Leadership. By aligning our values and embracing purpose in both our work and our lives, we can collectively forge a brighter future. And as the workforce continues to evolve, purpose becomes the transformative catalyst for positive change that empowers individuals, propels organisations, and uplifts society.

About the author: Rachele Focardi is Founder of XYZ@Work.