Bulletins

Work is no longer the meaning of life for some Americans

A new Pew research poll found that drastically fewer Americans find meaning or purpose in life through their work, in part because of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

A woman works at a laptop while a child plays nearby

A new Pew poll found a rapid decline in Americans finding meaning in life through their work.

Photo: Tom Werner/Getty Images

Before the coronavirus pandemic, nearly one quarter of all Americans said that they find meaning and purpose in their lives because of their work and their jobs. Now, that number has declined by more 9% in a new Pew research study, affirming anecdotal stories about the American population's increasing disinterest in participating in the labor market.


The survey researchers, writing in a summary of an analysis that compares global surveys about the meaning of life from 2017 and early 2021, suggest that the rapid falloff in finding meaning in work for Americans is related to the way people were forced to work from home and how shifting values and priorities during the pandemic affected people's relationship to work.

Higher-income and college-educated people were the most likely to find meaning in work before the pandemic, and the falloff in valuing careers can be seen within those specific groups as well. "While Americans with higher incomes and those with a college degree remain the most likely to bring up their jobs, both groups have become less likely to do so, with a decline from 37% to 27% among those in the upper-income tier and a decline from 39% to 26% among the college-educated," the researchers wrote in the report.

Tech companies have broadly reported an increasingly difficult battle to hire top talent over the last year, while the labor market as a whole is facing an unusually high shortage of applicants for all types of jobs and income levels. At Facebook, company internal reports described top engineers willing to turn down job offers and new tech startups flush with VC money on hiring sprees; on Glassdoor, Facebook's lowest ratings came from people fed-up with their lack of work-life balance. Both Microsoft and Amazon have said publicly that they want to hire hundreds of thousands of people for jobs in fulfillment, truck driving, cybersecurity, and corporate. Workers with unlimited paid-time-off aren't taking the vacation, and then reporting unusually high levels of burnout. Candidates are opting for companies that offer ever-increasing flexibility with when and how they work, and they feel empowered to demand more workplace benefits as part of their job offers.

The Great Resignation is not a myth — and this new Pew study shows that it stems, in part, from a fundamental shift in how people value their work, and what place they believe their jobs should have in their lives.

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