Purpose as the reason for action or existence has remained consistent over centuries. It’s where and how people and societies locate their purpose that has evolved over time. As we consider the state of our government and the present and future state of work, we see that the impetus to pursue purpose has not changed, but how and where we find it has.
Tribes of hunters and gatherers defined the First Wave. The reason for work, action, and existence (i.e., the purpose for being) centered on the sustainment of the family or community. Then came the Industrial Age, which flourished on the manufacturing and production needs created by a time of war. Local contribution expanded to become nationalism and evolved into a source of pride and an expression of the “American” identity. People began to look beyond the boundaries of their tribes. Communities like the middle class and counter-culture social movements grew as people pursued a sense of belonging among others who shared their mindset and values. Purpose became something rooted in national identity.
With the Third Wave, we have experienced yet another shift in where and how we pursue purpose. Globalization, underpinned by technology, is softening the boundaries between communities and cultures. The confluence of generations is impacting everything from how we engage, to how we buy, to how we invest our time. The reach of any human is broader and more fluid than ever. We can join a social-cultural movement on the other side of the world. Finding purpose is not always hard, but it does look very different than it did 50 years ago, and it will continue to evolve in the future.
Since there has been a shift away from the nationalism that shaped purpose in the Second Wave, what if the government is no longer positioned to be the leader of shared purpose? Though government may always have a role to play, there simply are many more players in the arena.
With increasing global influence and resources, enterprise appears to be positioned best to introduce, shape, and nurture societal impact and global purpose. In fact, customers and employees alike expect and demand that commercial organizations offer the means for a shared purpose, whether that is through CSR endeavors, global causes, or purely organizational goals. It makes sense. Most individuals seek and relish a sense of personal significance through giving of their time, talents, and treasures. Finding ways to share those efforts with others in their work, local, or global community adds a gravity of belonging that keeps people focused on working toward impact.
Regardless whether or not we choose to acknowledge it, the organizations we choose to work for quickly become one of our biggest personal investments in time and energy. As we continue to shed the ‘traditional 9:00-5:00’ work arrangement, our professional investment becomes increasingly intertwined with the fabric of our lives. Our work impacts income, influence – and identity.
Ironically, for those organizations striving to nurture shared commitment among their workforce or to engage with customers by sharing their core values, this new state of limitless choice represents a purpose in and of itself. Many leaders strive to give their workforce fulfilling tasks. Many leaders try to communicate and live out a set of core beliefs and contributions. And that’s important – especially as the large Millennial and Gen Z cohorts come into the workforce and economy. Those younger generations have made it clear that they align with and support brands with which they share a sense of purpose.
So we conclude that it is what we do with our identity, influence, and income that gives us purpose. And in the Third Wave, those focal points center on work. Perhaps it’s fair to say that the Future of Work includes the pursuit of purpose. As the sphere of organizational influence continues to expand – companies must work beyond stating their mission or business objectives. They must actively promote and engage their people in living out social values. They must incorporate a reason greater than growth into the standard operations. In doing so, they stand to solidify a community of like-minded individuals, offer up a maypole for people to center their efforts, and make a positive, sustainable impact on the world. If we can do that, we’ll have turned the purposeful motivations of the First and Second Waves into a grander reason for being in the Modern Era.
It's time to distinguish the purpose we can share to reach for and accomplish more together.
Jasmine Niernberger works with clients in the public and private sectors on strategy development, process improvement, and change management. Taking a people-centric approach, she helps clients recast their most pressing challenges as opportunities to maximize value for all stakeholders.
Toffler Associates is a future-focused strategic advisory firm. Our Future Proof® business consulting approach helps global leaders understand how future shifts impact current decisions so they can take advantage of opportunity, manage risk, and create future value.
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