How to develop a meaningful career

William E. Donald from the University of Southampton questions what millennials and gen Z professionals need to know about developing a meaningful career.

Career Advice


What is a “meaningful career”? It can be doing purpose-driven work that aligns with your values. It may mean finding a working arrangement that balances the different parts of your life. Or it could be a career that gives you the opportunity to be your authentic self, while contributing to the world or improving others’ lives. The answer is different for everyone, and can change over time.

Defining a meaningful career can be difficult enough – but then you need to get there. This is a deeply personal journey that involves identifying your values, passions and interests, and finding environments where you can thrive.

A new survey in the US has found that a sense of purpose at work or in school is the most important driver for gen Zers’ happiness. I recently interviewed 28 millennial and generation Z graduates in the UK about what a meaningful career means to them. All of the participants entered the labour market either during the 2008 financial crisis or the COVID pandemic, making them feel uncertain about their immediate future.

One millennial graduate observed how people in their cohort “took whatever job they could get, then looked around for something else as the market recovered”. A gen Z graduate noted: “The graduate market was so poor due to COVID-19 that it was just a case of taking any job that was offered.”

In other words, the economic environment they found themselves in meant they didn’t always have the flexibility to prioritise meaning in their job search.

Millennials and gen Zers both spoke of valuing a collaborative and inclusive work environment. They wanted employers to prioritise their wellbeing by managing workloads and giving them autonomy to do their work. Access to training and development, a competitive salary package and career progression opportunities all featured prominently in the interviews. Both groups also spoke of the need to feel that their work contributed value to the organisation or broader society.

I also uncovered differences between millennials and gen Zers about what they want from a meaningful career. However, these had more to do with life stages than generational labels.

Gen Zers felt that because of the pandemic, “there was so much uncertainty” – so they wanted “somewhere that had a bit more job security and stability”. They also felt a well-known employer with a good reputation “was safer in terms of job security during the pandemic”.

Millennials, now having children and “settling down”, placed greater emphasis on wanting a shorter commute and reducing the amount of physical travel for work. They were more likely to call for “family-friendly policies”, although women from both age groups discussed this more than men.

People prioritise different things in work depending on their life stages, and as things like caregiving responsibilities enter the picture. Your definition of a “meaningful” career might change over your lifespan.

Finding a meaningful career

Once you’ve determined what a meaningful career would look like for you, there are steps you can take to plan for and develop it. Remember, it is an ongoing process to align your career with your values, passions and interests, and it is perfectly normal for these to evolve over time.

1. Consider your environment

Think about how the physical space of work can help you thrive. For example, I’m a disabled and housebound millennial, so hybrid or in-person simply does not work for me. To do meaningful work, it has to happen at home. In contrast, if you live on your own or in a house-share with no space to work, you may find meaning from in-person interactions and seek out a role where you can be around other people.

2. Keep learning

Education does not have to begin or end with formal schooling. Commit to lifelong learning by embracing personal development throughout your career. Consider upskilling or reskilling opportunities, and alternative career paths.

I used to work in technology as a project manager. While I learned a lot, the work did not fulfil a sense of purpose and meaning for me. I retrained and pivoted into recruitment – helping graduates find internships and job opportunities gave me meaning, as I could see the outcome it had on people’s lives.

3. Build your network

You may not find or build a meaningful career all on your own. Developing an expansive network of contacts can give you insight into other industries, organisations or roles, and may help you access new opportunities in the future. You may want to meet with a career counsellor or find a mentor. Qualified career counsellors can be a wealth of information and support – as can friends, family and colleagues.

4. Be authentic and flexible

Because meaningful work is so personal, you have to have a strong sense of your own values – and stay true to them. Research shows there are many mental and physical benefits to having a purpose. If you know your values and purpose, you can align your work with your authentic self.

If you are trying to figure out what your values are or are stuck in a role that doesn’t align with them, do not panic. It’s never too late to make a change. As my own and my participants’ experiences show, not every job you take will be perfectly matched with your values. That’s OK. You can still learn skills and use this time to refine what a meaningful career means to you.

And if the reality of a situation does not meet your expectations, do not be afraid to try something new, or look for meaning outside of work.

*William E. Donald is Associate Professor of Sustainable Careers and Human Resource Management at the University of Southampton. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article. This article is run in partnership with HowTheLightGetsIn, the world’s largest ideas and music festival, which returns to Hay-on-Wye from May 24-27. On Sunday, May 26, The Conversation’s Avery Anapol will host a live event delving into whether “meaningful work” exists in today’s age. Check out the festival’s full line-up of speakers and don’t miss an exclusive 20% off tickets with code CONVO24.

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