To Keep Their Best Millennials, Companies Need A Social Purpose

But most bosses, it turns out, have no idea what purpose means.

To Keep Their Best Millennials, Companies Need A Social Purpose
Photo: Hannah Mentz/Getty Images

These days, everyone thinks business should have a purpose, but exactly what that purpose is depends a lot on whom you ask. Employees increasingly want work to have a positive societal benefit. Bosses, not surprisingly, are more likely to see purpose as a matter of earnings and profits, a new survey from PwC finds.


The survey of 1,510 workers and 500 managers shows a growing disconnect between younger generations of workers, who want genuine purpose in their work, and older generations of bosses, who are more likely see purpose as profitability.

“The CEO is thinking it’s really around business development and revenue generation. Then the employees are saying ‘We don’t care about that part.’ They want something to bring meaning to what they do, and that can give them a strong sense of community,” says Shannon Schuyler, PwC’s chief purpose officer.

More than 80% of employees ranked meaning in their day-to-day work as the most important thing to them. And 50% said they’d like to hear more about their company’s–or its clients’–societal impact. Four-fifths of business leaders believe purpose is central to business success. But only 34% think purpose should guide decision making–for instance, in how they hire and retain people, or in how they think through new opportunities.

“[Senior managers] can see purpose is important, but they’re not changing their behavior,” says Schuyler. “They say they want this type of worker, and the workforce is saying it needs this in order to be loyal and stay. But they’re not recruiting people differently, evaluating people differently, or rewarding them differently.”

Schuyler recommends a few ways companies can embed and systematize purpose (as opposed to just talking about it).

One, they can be open to internal communication by purpose-oriented employees (not putting restrictions on videos on YouTube, for instance). “You have to let people tell their story in a very authentic way and trust it is going to be appropriate. Millennials will only listen to another millennial,” she says.


Two, they can incorporate purpose into internal systems, for instance in how companies buy raw materials and goods, and manage supply chains. “A lot of companies have this great purpose statement, but it doesn’t connect with other things they do. That’s a significant disconnect if you’re an employee,” Schuyler says.

And three, companies can empower “purpose pioneers” to think up purpose-type business ideas. These “purposepreneurs” (if you will) can use purpose as “a prism” to conceive fresh ways of doing things. “Before, purpose was going to take away from their jobs and be disruptive. Now we are realizing that is exactly what we need. It’s disruption around purpose that’s going to create new solutions to old problems,” Schuyler says.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.