Here at the start of our careers, it’s plain that we spend a *lot* of time at work. A full-time job takes up a third of our day, and many of us are hustling even more than that. If we spend that time doing dull work with bitter coworkers, life can get dark fast.
So how can we find meaningful work? What should we look for if we want a job that engages the best of our gifts? Where can we discover work that we’re excited to contribute to?
The answers to those questions will be different for an engineer than for a hair stylist, but research has shown some patterns that might help us set out in the right direction. Looking for these three characteristics in your work environment can help you flourish in work, in life, and in all the places in between.
Finding a workplace that emphasizes relationships and conviviality can empower you to do your tasks as well as find meaning at work knowing that you have a support system there to motivate, assist, and work alongside you. According to data from Springtide Research Institute and decades of research done by Gallup polls, when our generation has strong, mentored relationships at work, we feel more engaged, empowered, and supported in the workplace.
As a young person just barely scratching the surface of the working world, my most rewarding jobs and internships have come in contexts where my coworkers have established themselves on an even playing field with me — even though I would traditionally think of them as being “above me” in the org chart. While acting in the role of a mentor, they also make it possible for me to feel like I am making a real contribution to the company by having my voice uplifted by my superiors in meetings. When work is relational in this way, it is easier to produce at a higher level because I know the people who are supervising my efforts care about more than just whatever task I’m doing.
Consequentially, I find that the interests I have outside of work are all the more enjoyable when I can share them with my mentors and colleagues. Springtide Research Institute’s latest report on helping young people flourish and find balance in work and life found that 74 percent of our generation feels more connected to the things we do outside of work to enrich our lives when we can do them with people who support us. Remote work might make it difficult to do activities together, especially if your team is geographically dispersed, but even finding virtual space to share common joys and celebrate parts of life outside work makes the distance feel smaller.
As you explore employment opportunities, one way to assess the culture of an organization is by asking them to describe the team’s communication style. With new communication styles coming in to replace traditional top-down communication, young employees have more opportunities to make their voices heard and known. An organization that welcomes feedback from the bottom-up or that values lateral communication has invested in team culture and relationships, which could be a good place to find mentorship.
I used to think finding meaningful work only applied to those who went into certain fields of work: academia, the medical field, or art, for example. Being unaccustomed to the reality of the working world, I thought meaning could only be found in jobs that clearly and tangibly improved people’s lives or produced beauty in some way. I kept my scope of possible purposeful work narrow, which led me to fearfully wonder if I would be “one of the lucky ones” who found a job that was both meaningful and paid the bills.
But meaningful work and paying the bills are not mutually exclusive. Part of finding meaning at work depends on what kind of contribution you want to make.
For a great majority of our generation, finding meaning at work is one of the most important qualities when searching for employment, according to Springtide Research Institute. Given the opportunity, many of us would rather take a role where we could make a difference in someone’s life over taking a job where money is the main factor. Our generation wants the organizations we are members of to reflect our personal values.
To find work in a field or area that is meaningful to you, do some reflection on the causes or issues that you find most important and compelling. You don’t have to find the one, single area that you want to devote 40 years of your life to — especially at the start of your career, just think about what kinds of things are important to you as a place to start: Helping the elderly? Addressing climate change? Transforming cities?
You might also think about the types of work you are well suited for. Even withing organizations that are addressing a certain sector, there are a variety of jobs. Is it important to you to work with your hands? To interact with people or clients? To create or write or code?
When you have some clarity on what’s important to you, don’t wait for a job to open to apply to it. Organizations are always turning over and looking for new contributors. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a team and ask to learn more about what they do and how you might contribute. A freelance or part-time arrangement could turn into more opportunities down the road.
Finding opportunities to grow as a person and a professional when you’ve only just started your career can seem daunting. For a lot of people, their first jobs are ones that can help them network, gain experience in the working world, and perhaps become financially stable. But personal growth is still achievable, even when your job is not the job you’ll have for the long haul. There are subtle yet effective ways in which you can still contextualize your daily (sometimes mundane) tasks in light of bigger goals you and your company have set for your development.
Work without growth can be unsustainable — Springtide reports that nearly 70 percent of our generation says the more we learn about ourselves, the better people (and employees) we become. Discovering opportunities for growth can help you cultivate meaning in life — especially as we enter a tumultuous time when our identity, beliefs, and worldviews are still being formed. Growth sometimes comes in the form of challenges and uncomfortable situations, but it beats remaining stagnant.
To find a workplace that encourages growth, ask about opportunities for professional development. Many organizations budget resources to send staff to conferences or take classes. The organization benefits when employees develop skill and expertise because they become better at their jobs and more invested in the mission. Some organizations have robust employee wellness programs as well, providing support for therapy or recreation or continuing education.
Seeking mentorship, meaning, and growth opportunities in your job can help you find and start a career that brings purpose to your work, which can lead to personal transformation. As Springtide Research Institute discovered, that transformation “means that both a young person’s work and their life outside of work contribute to personal and professional flourishing and well-being. We mean that they are doing their best work and being their best selves.”