What does your job mean to you? Do you work to live, meaning your job is simply a paycheck and a way to accrue wealth? Or do you live to work, expecting your job to be a source of meaningful satisfaction? 

The answer to this question can differ wildly across demographics and generations — distilled into generalizations about “company men” or “kids these days” who shirk stability to chase their dreams. These vast differences can make it difficult for employers to intuit what workers need to be satisfied in their jobs. But new research from Columbia Business School’s Professor Stephan Meier sheds light on one way these preferences are shaped and how employers can use them to better understand their workforce. 

In his recent paper, “Macroeconomic Conditions When Young Shape Job Preferences for Life,” Meier, the School’s James P. Gorman Professor of Business, analyzed how workers ranked the importance of income versus nonmonetary meaning in their jobs over the course of 40 years. He found that workers’ priorities heavily depended on the macroeconomic conditions — such as inflation, employment rates, or recessions — during their earliest years in the workforce. For people graduating high school or college during economically prosperous times, meaning was more important in a job than pay; for workers coming of age during an economic downturn, income took precedence over meaningful employment. And those conditions didn’t just change what they looked for in their first job — their preferences lasted. 

As a result, Meier says, generalizations about boomers and millennials overlook a nuanced landscape of worker preferences that employers can tap into. “It's not just the ‘kids these days,’” he says. “Everybody these days wants something different.” 

Impressionable Years

It’s no secret that economic shifts like the dot-com boom or the Great Recession can temporarily shift the priorities of the entire workforce. Workers might feel more confident bargaining for higher wages during a boom or become reluctant to leave an unsatisfying job during a recession. But young workers experience those changes differently, Meier found. The window between ages 18 and 25 is known by psychologists as the “impressionable years,” Meier says. This, he says, is when people develop their core beliefs and values, not earlier in childhood, as many parents might think. 

For his study, Meier analyzed worker surveys from 18 years spanning from 1973 to 2014. He found that over the course of their lives, people generally shifted toward valuing meaning over income in their careers. But the economy during those impressionable years shaped how a person viewed the role of work for the rest of their working life, Meier found. 

“What matters is whether the macroeconomic conditions were good or bad when people grew up,” he says. “When the economy was bad during those impressionable years, income became more important than meaning in a person’s job — for the rest of their life. For somebody who grew up in a good economy, income became a little less important and meaning more so.” 

For workers prioritizing meaningful work, their job search may extend until they find a role offering significant personal satisfaction, Meier says. These positions might offer workers greater autonomy, a supportive corporate culture, or the chance to make a social impact. For instance, a position at a children's hospital could be more appealing than a higher paying job at, say, a tobacco company.

For those coming of age during harsh economic conditions, the opposite could be true. The young workers in the most recent years of Meier’s study group entered the workforce during the Great Recession, where they experienced the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis. They expressed a significant preference for earning a high income over pursuing meaningful work as compared to young workers in earlier years in the study. A similar trend appeared among young workers during the inflation-driven Volcker Recession in the 1980s.

What Workers Want 

To apply this research in the workplace, Meier offers two recommendations for employers. The first is to reimagine what a “generation” of workers is. A mountain of advice has been published on generational differences among employees. Boomers may be described as work-centric and motivated by promotions, while Gen X often gets credit for inventing work-life balance. Millennials need flexible work options, these analyses say, while Gen Z is concerned with mental health resources and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

In spite of all the buzzworthy headlines, generational groupings are “almost a meaningless classification” when it comes to considering workers’ preferences, Meier says. Generations typically span 15 years, but Meier found that people could be of the same generation and still have greatly varied experiences entering the workforce. For example, the 2008 financial crisis is widely considered a defining feature of the millennial generation, but Meier argues it affected some millennials differently than others. “There are ‘lucky millennials’ and ‘unlucky millennials,’ in terms of when they actually hit the labor market,” he says. “You need to understand people on a much deeper level than just the 50-plus and 20 [and] below. That doesn't give you much leverage in understanding what they really want.” 

Second, he says gathering and using data on the workforce can help employers individualize the working experience. Meier’s study defined a meaningful job as one that makes the worker feel “important and gives a feeling of accomplishment,” or, as he says, is attractive because it offers something other than financial compensation. 

Meier says employers should be using data to personalize the work experience to cohorts of workers. He suggests considering employees’ family situations, how much flexibility they want or need, and what makes them genuinely productive. “There is still a lot of heterogeneity that [thanks to data] we can now exploit to personalize the workforce experience and make work better,” he says.

However, today’s companies may face a uniquely nuanced landscape. Their newest workers have been shaped by the seismic shifts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. When it comes to anticipating the fallout, Meier predicts that the event will certainly shape young workers' outlook. How exactly it does so has yet to be seen. 

The pandemic falls outside of our traditional understanding of “boom” and “bust.” While unemployment jumped during the 2020 lockdown, creating an economic condition that might predispose workers to prefer income over meaning, the global health emergency may have otherwise altered how people think about work. 

“​​The pandemic really showed how unequal access to health care is and the inequality in where and how people work,” Meier says. “But of course, the pandemic was a major, major shock that then led to resignations, massive early retirements, and probably shifts in how we — and especially ‘impressionable’ workers — see the world for the rest of our lives.”


In this video Glenn Hubbard, Dean Emeritus and Russell L. Carson Professor of Finance and Economics at Columbia Business School, offers insights into the economy for 2024 and beyond: