Purpose versus pay: What factors more when choosing a job?

Despite people valuing both meaningful work and salary, there is only one winner when employees are made to choose one over the other.
By: | October 16, 2023

When choosing between meaningful work or a better salary, it is no contest: most people overwhelmingly prefer higher-paying jobs with low meaningfulness over low-salary jobs with high meaningfulness.

Sarah Ward, Assistant Professor of business administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose new research studied factors that contribute to meaning in life and work, said, “Jobseekers often must choose between prioritising meaningful work or high compensation, and this paper illustrates that people have a stronger relative preference for a higher salary as opposed to meaningful work.”

Across eight studies spanning more than 4,000 participants, Professor Ward examined the trade-offs between meaningful work and salary in prospective employees’ evaluations of actual and hypothetical jobs. The studies showed that while respondents valued both meaningful work and salary, they were more likely than not to pick high-salary jobs with low meaningfulness over low-salary jobs with high meaningfulness, according to six of the studies. Two other studies showed that respondents showed higher priority for more pay over meaningful work at their current jobs.

Higher salaries were preferred over meaningful work because people believed that earning more money would translate into to a happier, more meaningful personal life, Professor Ward said. These results were consistent even for employees with higher income levels.

READ MORE: The unifying power of purpose across generations

“Certainly, it’s understandable why people focus on those details,” she said, adding that the research shows how a variety of factors might interfere with the preference for and the pursuit of finding meaningful work. “But I think it’s so important to figure out what kind of work you’ll enjoy doing, and how that work is going to make you feel about your life and about the impact you’re going to have on others.”