Building Meaningful Lives by Creating a Purposeful Workplace 

May 12, 2017

Highlights from the Milken Institute Global Conference

Today’s employees — especially millennials — are looking for more than just a paycheck

One of the key themes to emerge from conversations at the Milken Institute’s Global Conference is the need for people to feel a sense of purpose in the work they do. Companies that meet this need are more likely to achieve long-term profitability for several reasons.

First, workers who feel a sense of purpose are more likely to go the extra mile to do good work and take good care of customers. “There are direct financial results from the so-called soft skills,” says Mark Weinberger, EY’s chairman and chief executive officer. “You know you’re going to get there when you don’t have an initiative — it’s part of your culture. And you know the saying, ‘culture eats strategy for lunch.’”

Second, in a competitive market job market, the opportunity for meaningful work attracts the best talent. Competition is especially acute in the world of tech, a reality that compels companies to give workers more than just a financial incentive, according to Cisco Executive Chairman John Chambers.

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John Chambers, Executive Chairman, Cisco; Andy Serwer, Editor-in-Chief, Yahoo Finance; Denise Morrison, President and CEO, Campbell Soup Company; Tim Sloan, CEO and President, Wells Fargo & Co.; Mark Weinberger, Global Chairman and CEO, EY; Devin Wenig, President and CEO, eBay Inc.

“It’s a war for talent in this industry,” he said. “And you either win or lose your company based on that war for talent.”

Education is just the beginning

Employers are changing the way they look at education, and workers must pay heed. Rapid changes in technology are transforming the way people work and the skills they need. A degree may get you in the door, but it won’t provide a career-spanning skillset. Students preparing for the workforce, as well as those already in the workforce, should expect to make continuing education part of their working lives. “Your degree enables you,” Weinberger said. “It doesn’t define you.”

The search for high-tech talent has gone global

Companies’ search for the best talent doesn’t stop at the border. The controversy surrounding H-1B visas U.S. companies use to hire temporary foreign workers can be blamed, in part, on the U.S. education system’s failure to give students a basic foundation in science, eBay President and CEO Devin Wenig said.

Employers “don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘I want to hire a foreign worker,’ Wenig said. “We wake up and say, ‘I need someone who can develop a mobile application. I need somebody who can understand advanced data skills.’ And we get those people wherever we can get them. There are pockets (in the workforce) where you can’t hire people.”

As the U.S. debates immigration policy, it also needs to refocus public schools to better prepare students to work in a globally competitive, tech-driven economy “because it is coming, and it is coming fast.”

The global convergence of aspiration

Education is only one element of the global competition not just for prosperity, but for meaningful lives. The spread of the Internet and mobile devices has awakened the aspirations of millions of people in poor, underdeveloped economies. People in regions where opportunity has been limited historically not only can see how others live, but can communicate with them. As a result, said Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank Group, they no longer believe poverty and social class are is inescapable. Ease of communication has caused them to see people in wealthier countries as their “reference group.” 

“Aspirations are rising,” he said. “There is a convergence around the world. People basically want the same thing.”

Keeping it in check

The ubiquity of technology also poses challenges, even for the prosperous and tech savvy. For many, slavish devotion to mobile phones and social media has become an addiction that destroys the joy of life and relationships. “It has become harder and harder for us to be alone and yet the biggest mental health problem is isolation,” said Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global and founder of the Huffington Post. “We’re drowning in data and starved for wisdom.”

The loss of meaning and the rise of populism

The absence of meaning, and diminishing hope of a better future, have allowed populist movements to gain traction in Western democracies, said Yascha Mounk, author and lecturer at Harvard University. In the decades following World War II there was a dramatic increase in wealth and quality of life for millions who now fear it is slipping away.

Populism rises “when you feel like it’s a zero-sum game and you feel the person over there who is doing well is taking something out of your pocket,” he said.


Yascha Mounk, Author and Lecturer, Harvard University

Defending liberal democracy

Another explanation for aggressive populism is complacency on the part of those who believe in democratic institutions and traditions. The disaffected, including many young people, don’t understand the consequences of rejecting liberal democracy, Mounk said. Many of institutions themselves, including Harvard, no longer heed their historic mission to teach and defend democratic values.

“We just need to fight the good fight,” he said, and convince people to “reject that view that blowing things (the system) up might be pleasant.”

2017 Global Conference

View photos from Global Conference on Flickr