The Pursuit of Purpose

Image source: Wikimedia
Image source: Wikimedia

As societies have gotten wealthier, more and more people have come to view money as a secondary priority in their choice of profession—a trend that seems to have been building for decades. But, suggests Aaron Hurst, author of a new book called The Purpose Economy, we’re now entering a dramatically different era centered on finding meaning in one’s work.

“Many writers and researchers have discovered new theories to explain this shift in culture, such as striving for community, the need for self-expression or the longing for happiness,” notes Hurst, who was featured this morning on public radio’s “Marketplace.” “The Purpose Economy explains where . . . individuals step out to create their own means of finding purpose through their work.”

While we aren’t sure if Peter Drucker would have seen people today as more purpose-driven than those of the 1940s and ’50s, we know that the question of purpose was one to which he frequently returned. In fact, in that earlier era, he entertained hopes that industry would provide workers with a strong sense of purpose through what he called “the plant community.”

But this ideal failed to ever really “take root,” in Drucker’s words, and he began to look outside people’s regular workplace for remedies.

“I still strongly maintain that the employee has to be given the maximum responsibility and self-control,” Drucker wrote decades later in his book Post-Capitalist Society. “But individuals, and especially knowledge workers, need an additional sphere of social life, of personal relationships and of contribution outside and beyond the job.”

One place that Drucker saw great hope for this was the social sector—and it’s interesting, in this regard, that Hurst focuses in the opening pages of The Purpose Economy on the Taproot Foundation, a nonprofit that mobilizes professionals to engage in pro-bono service aimed at driving social change.

But Hurst also sees another way that people are pursuing purpose: They’re actively seeking it as they adapt to an economy in which growing numbers of workers are becoming self-employed (a subject that we ourselves took up recently). “People when they’re freelancing need a sense of purpose to give them continuity between projects,” Hurst told “Marketplace.”

Interestingly, Drucker seemed to anticipate something along these same lines, as he thought about the employees of tomorrow. Increasingly, people “will have more than one career,” he said. “In the meantime, the achievers will want to make a contribution, want to lead a fulfilled life, want to feel that there is some purpose to their being on this earth.”

Do you think that finding a sense of purpose in one’s career is becoming more important for people? Why or why not?