Research (and for many of us, personal experience) tells us that people want jobs they find meaningful. So much so that, according to new research published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, some people would take a 32 percent pay cut if it meant getting to do a job that felt more meaningful.
There are significant benefits to doing work that feeds you on a deeper level. “People who are able to derive a sense of meaning from their work enjoy many benefits, including enhanced motivation, productivity and well-being,” co-authors Jing Hu, a doctorate student at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and Jacob B. Hirsh, PhD, an assistant professor of organizational behavior and HR management at the University of Toronto Mississauga, wrote in the study. Hirsh and Hu designed four different studies to investigate the link between meaningful jobs and salary.
In the first study, they asked 245 participants to answer questions like “what is a job or career that you are capable of doing that you think would provide you with a sense of personal meaning?” through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, an online crowdsourcing marketplace. They had them answer the same question for a job they thought would be meaningless. Participants listed 86 different meaningful jobs and 65 meaningless ones. The most commonly listed meaningful jobs were teacher, writer, artist, nurse or working for a non-profit organization and the most common meaningless jobs included accountant, banker and food service worker.
Next, participants shared the lowest yearly salary (before taxes) they would accept to do the jobs they had listed. (For context, the median income of respondents was between $50,000 and $59,999 at the time of the study.) On average, participants said that their minimum acceptable salary for a meaningless job was $52,498, while they would accept $32,666 to do a meaningful job. Here’s another way of looking at it: participants were willing to accept a 32 percent salary cut if it meant doing a job that gave them meaning, the researchers wrote in the study.
The results from the other three studies mirrored those from the first. The second study found that when primed to think about the meaningful impact certain jobs could have, participants were willing to accept a lower salary. This held true even for jobs traditionally thought to be high-pay but low-meaning, like being a lawyer, the researchers noted in the study.
The researchers also wanted to see if these results held true in a global population, so they pulled data from the International Social Survey Program’s Work Orientation Module including 43,441 participants from “31 different (primarily developed) countries,” according to the study. Participants answered questions about their work lives two different times, once in 2005 and once in 2015. More meaningful work was linked to a “greater willingness to forego higher paying job options,” the researchers wrote. Interestingly, they found that the relationship was stronger in 2015 compared to 2005, which the researchers wrote might reflect “a greater emphasis on meaningful work among the younger cohort of employees.”
The last experiment was designed to explain the difference between finding “meaning in work” and “meaning at work.” The study defines these two respectively as “the extent to which an individual’s work activities themselves are meaningful” versus “the extent to which employees perceive their involvement within an organizational community as meaningful” regardless of the specific job.
They recruited 430 participants (also through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk) with a wide variety of full time jobs to answer how strongly they agreed with statements about meaning in work compared to meaning at work. Statements about meaning in work focused on the job itself, such as “I would turn down a higher paying job with my current employer in order to keep working in the job I am now,” whereas statements regarding meaning at work asked about the larger organization, such as “I would turn down a higher-paying job offer for the same job, but from a different company, in order to stay with my current employer.” Those who reported more meaningful work experiences were more likely “to turn down a different but higher paying job in the same organization,” according to the researchers, and “turn down the same job for for higher pay in a different organization.”
These findings add emphasis and data to the idea that we want jobs that fulfill us on a deeper level than just our bank accounts. The researchers note that these studies could be used by organizations to reduce costs by looking for employees who already find the work personally meaningful. But, they note, if companies “purposefully try to exploit their employees’ inherent sense of work meaningfulness undesirable outcomes might emerge.”
The research also underscores how our collective views on work are changing. We’re seeking more meaning in the world around us, and seeing as we spend so much of our time on our work, we want to do jobs that fulfill us—even if it means lower pay.
Read the full study here.