Are Millennials Really the ‘Purpose’ Generation?

New research indicates that people may become more purposeful much later their lives, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now. 

Does one’s sense of purpose peak at age 60?

A recent study from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine says so. Analyzing data from 1,042 adults, aged 21 to over 100, the study found that the presence of meaning in life exhibits an inverted U-shaped relationship with age: meaning steadily increases as people hit their 30s, 40s and 50s, peaking at 60 before it begins a steady decline.

What does this mean in light of all the buzz that millennials (those born between about 1980 and 2000) are the most purpose-driven generation to hit the workforce? It may simply be that different databases—a general population sample versus a workplace sample—yield different conclusions.

Or, contrary to the word on the street—that millennials dominate the purpose-first narrative—it could be that purpose orientation increases across life’s decades. For example, the 2016 Global Report on Purpose at Work, generated by LinkedIn and the research consultancy Imperative, found that when it comes to a sense of purpose, baby boomers were actually leading the way.

That report explained this finding through the lens of broader theories in developmental psychology, citing the eight-stage theory of development and identity of the late Harvard psychologist Erik Erikson. Erickson proposed a shift of identity and life issues where, between the ages of 18 and 35 (that would include today’s millennials), people focus on building relationships. But at midlife, folks shift to grappling with what they are contributing to society.

This echoes another psychology mainstay, Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Often cited in business presentations and leadership lectures, Maslow’s theory shows humans progressing through a pyramid of motivators. He proposed that it isn’t until we have our most basic needs met that we can fully embrace a sense of purpose and meaning, making it the foundation of how we act and behave. Maslow saw this pyramid as an ongoing, lifelong process —the tip of which one only a small percentage of people actually achieve.

Still, the idea of a purpose-driven generation of youth refuses to go away despite the abundance of evidence showing that meaning increases across the first three-quarters of the lifespan. We know millennials are demanding more work-life balance, more learning opportunities, and more roles that align with their talents and values. Still, I wonder if it’s fair to keep pigeonholing them into being the purpose-driven generation that’s going to save the world over the long haul. After all, it takes time to get clear about your values and even more time to figure out what they look like in action.

When it comes to purpose, I wonder if generational research will ever tell us everything we need to know. As my colleague and friend George Kohlrieser, professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne Switzerland, recently opined, “So many people say that what drove them originally to work so hard to succeed no longer holds much meaning for them. They feel empty, even some anxiety about what matters. But this makes them more ready to find a deeper purpose for the future.”

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