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The Great Restoration: Getting People Back to Work on Purpose

The reality is, there is not a labor shortage, there is a leadership shortage.

Photo courtesy of Drew Beamer via Unsplash

Over the past year there has been much talk about “The Great Resignation,” and the question has begged: How do we get people back to work? To understand where we go from here, leaders must understand how we got here in the first place.

During recent decades, employees have strived to find work-life balance, separating work from life, because let’s face it, work was something they had to do, versus something they wanted to do or enjoyed doing. But, in reality, what employees have long been searching for is work-life integration—a sense of purpose and meaning in their work.

In recent years, many publications have validated this deep desire of the workforce. A November 2018 article published by the Harvard Business Review stated that nine out of 10 people are willing to earn less money to do more meaningful work. Furthermore, a Gallop poll in 2019 revealed that 75 percent of people who quit their jobs did so for less money and more meaning, purpose, flexibility and autonomy. And yet another article was published by McKinsey & Company in April of 2021 entitled, “Help Your Employees Find Purpose—Or Watch Them Leave.”

For decades, the currency of the workforce was measured in money. We traded time, something we could never get more of, for money, something we could always make more of—without thinking twice about it. Each of us has always had a finite number above each of our heads, an expiration date, we didn’t pay any real attention to because we couldn’t see it. But COVID opened our eyes. It awakened us to the fact that the clock was ticking, and whatever time we had left, we wanted it to matter. We had come face-to-face with our mortality, and we suddenly had a lot of time to reflect on how we were actually living our lives. If my life ended tomorrow because of COVID, had I lived well? What had I accomplished? What had I not accomplished? Had I spent enough quality time with my family? Had I achieved my goals and dreams? Was my life meaningful? Was I living out my purpose? Life to us was suddenly shorter, much shorter, and our time was suddenly much more valuable.

In the early 2000s, the workforce was filled with baby boomers and Gen-Xers who were following the work patterns of the generations before them—trading time for money, and doing so at a furious rate. These were the generations of many parents who were not at the kitchen table for dinner, not at their kids’ soccer games or dance recitals, they were too busy building their nest egg and “Keeping up with the Joneses,” all to the soundtrack of Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle. Meanwhile, the next generation that was about to enter the workforce was watching closely, and when the market came crashing down in 2008, this transformational generation we now know as millennials, consciously or unconsciously, said to themselves: “not me.”

As many of them watched their parent’s lifesavings get cut in half overnight, their childhood homes get foreclosed on and parents who had just retired have to go back to work, they very quickly realized that the time-for-money tradeoff was not worth it. For them, time instantly became worth more to them than money. Ten years later, the millennial generation poured into the marketplace and quickly accounted for more than half of the workforce. Initially, they were viewed as a lazy generation with much less of a work ethic than those before them. The truth of the matter was that they were simply not motivated by the same currency of the generations before them. The currency of the workforce had shifted, from money to time. If they were going to give their time, they wanted to know that their work mattered, that they were a part of something bigger than themselves, something that would last. Where previous generations looked for pay and perks in their work, millennials were looking for purpose and partnership. 

But millennials weren’t alone in their thinking. Many Gen-Xers had had this same desire for years, we just never expressed it. COVID changed all of that.

Today, millennials and Gen-Xers make up a majority of the workforce, and almost two years after our lives were turned upside down by COVID, we have suddenly found ourselves living in an unrecognizable world. A world with a record amount of job openings, with a record population of people available to work, coexisting at the same time. The reality is, there is not a labor shortage, there is a leadership shortage. I said many years ago that if leaders are not asking the question, “Who are we helping our people become,” they will soon be asking “Where are our people?” 

“The Great Restoration” begins with leaders helping people see that they matter, that their work matters, that it has purpose and meaning, that their time is valued and that they are contributing to something that will last. Many hands make light work, and there is no shortage of hands. There is only a shortage of leaders to guide them, to show them the difference they can make, and the sense of joy, accomplishment and fulfillment they can have when they step into their purpose.  

Davin Salvagno is the founder and CEO of PurposePoint, the cofounder of The Purpose Summit and the author of Finding Purpose at Work. He is an inspirational speaker and thought leader known for connecting purpose, people and performance. Having spent nearly two decades serving in various leadership roles in finance, human resources, operations and marketing with Fortune 500 companies, his insights and talks have helped hundreds of organizations across the world engage their purpose and inspire their people.