Too often, business students see little overlap between the jobs they plan to do — and those they consider most socially responsible or would most enjoy.
Many employees today are motivated by an interest in meaningful work, not just economic rewards. A number of forces contribute to this search for meaning at work. On a generational level, older workers near retirement may be looking for work that is potentially more fulfilling, even if it is less economically rewarding. Meanwhile, the desire for meaningful work also seems pervasive among today’s young entry-level workers, a generation known, at least in the United States, for a lack of organizational loyalty and a demand for a flexible work environment. Finally,
for people of all ages, greater social and environmental consciousness is affecting consumption patterns while also influencing the labor supply. For instance, concern about climate change has expanded interest in career possibilities in renewable energy and is stimulating product and process innovation.
What role do business schools have in preparing our students to choose meaningful work? For a number of years, I have conducted a classroom exercise on meaningful work that is the basis for a forthcoming article in the 2009 issue of the Journal of Business Ethics Education. In the exercise, undergraduate and graduate business students are asked three questions over the course of an academic term:
1. A year out of this program, what do you expect your job will be? This is the pragmatic question of market fit, the near-term reality that loans need to be repaid, foundations built and families supported — often prior to the full-on pursuit of one’s dreams.
2. What kind of job contributes the most to general well-being? In philosophical parlance, this is the normative question of social responsibility, referring to what we should do — not necessarily what we are motivated to do for self-realization or economic necessity.
3. Practicality aside, if you could be doing anything 10 years from now, what would it be? This is the “dream job” question, as close as business students come to defining what they are really all about, what would promote “self-realization.”
C. Michaelson, “Teaching Meaningful Work: Philosophical Discussions on the Ethics of Career Choice,” Journal of Business Ethics Education 6 (2009), in press.
What has been most striking is that there is almost no overlap among students’ answers to the three questions.