Is 'purpose' in work important to today's college graduates?
A student intern New Jersey City University, holds a crab while working with students, workers and volunteers, associated with NY/NJ Baykeeper. Source: AFP/Don Emmert

One of the end goals of college is to prepare students to join the workforce. Far beyond just an exercise to earn a livelihood, the job we look for today must fulfill other criteria too. We study to graduate and land a job that will let us pursue our passions, or just to make us happy. Increasingly, millennials report seeking purpose in their work, inspiring the phrase “from paycheck to purpose”.

A new survey by Bates College and Gallup confirms this. Four out of five college graduates say it is very important (37 percent) or extremely important (43 percent) to derive a sense of purpose from their work.

Yet, despite its importance, less than half of college graduates succeed in finding purposeful work.

“Given how infrequently graduates strongly agree with individual statements that reflect purpose
in work, these findings suggest that colleges and universities may benefit from focusing on how to prepare students to lead meaningful and engaged professional lives,” writes the report.

Higher education providers can draw inspiration from what graduates list as experiences that helped them find high levels of purpose in work: internships, encouraging mentors, realistic expectations of future careers and college programs about meaning in work.

However, far too few students have such experiences. Only 56 percent strongly agree with the statement, “I had an internship or job that allowed me to apply what I was learning in the classroom”. The study found that those who had one or two internships report higher levels of purpose in work.

Far too few also reported receiving realistic expectations of their future job prospects. Only 23 percent said they strongly agree they were given realistic expectations for their employment prospects upon graduation.

“I had a lot of idealistic professors that really made me think that I was going to change the world kind of thing. That we all were. We were going to go out there and really be a great politician or a great lawyer and I think even though I did the co-op…you go back to that and it’s just kind of like it’s not the real world. You go out there and you’re just another person,” one graduate said in the report.

Reflection leads to purpose

The survey also found a relationship between self-reflection and high levels of purpose in work. Graduates with higher levels of reflection are 67 percent more likely to find high levels of purpose in their work than those with low levels of reflection.

Higher education institutions can use this to their advantage. To promote a sense of purpose in work, they can encourage students to “think deeply about their future work” in their early years of college. By infusing experiences like internships and the setting of realistic expectations with reflective skill sets, colleges can help students maximise their college experience, the study’s authors suggest.

Doing so can have payoffs for the global workforce. Graduates who see purpose in work are almost ten times more likely to have high overall well-being.

“Fundamentally, when colleges support students through a developmental process of reflection and awareness of their interests, values and strengths, helping them align their personal traits with realistic professional aspirations through real-world exposure, students will be well-served, institutions will be
more successful and the global workforce will be more vibrant and engaged,” they conclude.

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