By Heidi Ashby, UBS Y Think Tank

If money were no object – A purpose-driven world

In the 1930s, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that in the 21st century we would be working a 15-hour working week. He envisaged that technology would advance to such an extent that machines would take over our jobs, presenting us with a new conundrum:

“For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well… it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes. Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society.”

Keynes’s idea has been much challenged and questioned over the past decades; still, he introduced an interesting possibility for our collective future. How would we use our time if we were given more of it? How would we adapt to a world where our adult life was not consumed by work? What other areas of life would we derive meaning from? This brings us to the idea that there might be a great surge of purpose-seeking, in life, in work and in business.

Purpose has been pondered by many previous generations

Introducing the purpose economy

Entrepreneur Aaron Hurst introduced his idea of the purpose economy in his book of the same name. He now traverses the world speaking to crowds of sympathizers and skeptics alike. Hurst argues that a purpose economy will succeed the information age and that in the coming years we will be driven not primarily by money but by purpose.

For Hurst, purpose has key three elements 1:

The importance of relationships is clear. Humans can gain considerable purpose from simply interacting with others, engaging and just generally getting along. We all realize that working with good colleagues makes a difference when it comes to our professional well-being. Sometimes it is simply working with a good friend that can give us the purpose we need to get out of bed in the morning. At our core, we are social beings and human connection is what we crave. However, in a world of increasing digitization and globally dispersed workforces, the nature of our social connections is altering dramatically. One of the biggest challenges for companies today and in the future is to maintain a sense of “people” despite increasing dependence on technology as a communication channel.

Relationships are an important element of purpose generation.

For the second aspect, it is essential to differentiate between cause and purpose. It is a common misconception that in order to live with purpose we must live for, work for, believe in, or support a cause. Being part of something bigger is not necessarily about being part of a political movement, or a volunteering group. It’s about the sense of community, belonging, or activity which can be achieved regardless of social, environmental and economic causes, such as building a house, creating a publication, or even optimizing an investment portfolio… Educationalist Sir Ken Robinson referred to discovering a personal purpose as “finding one’s element”. A critic of non-creative educational systems, Robinson argues that individuals have capacity for extraordinary things but the first step towards realizing them is being educated in an environment that provides the space necessary for finding one’s passion.

The final aspect describes our need to grow. Our biological tendencies towards worry and anxiety ceaselessly drive us to make innovations that are of use to ourselves and our surroundings. We are rarely content with our current state of being and are constantly on the lookout for ways to optimize and improve our own capabilities. Learning new things does not end with graduation certificates. It continues throughout our lives. We should never underestimate how much we will change, no matter what age we are.

But purpose is not just a concept for employees and private individuals. It is also for clients, customers, and businesses.

…the purpose-driven business

Branding consultant Simon Mainwaring from We First has argued that incorporating purpose into business models would be a necessary “survival strategy in the shrinking economy” as it can provide the competitive edge that companies need to stand out. He means purpose not just in marketing and flowery words but also in concrete actions and activities – purpose that cannot be faked 2. Purpose is a tool to attract talent, a way to stand out from the crowd and rejuvenate dwindling trust ratings. Every industry knows the mantra “winning the hearts and minds of consumers.” B2C companies especially need to find ways to appeal to consumers on an emotional as well as a rational level. But more than just appealing to their customers, companies need to cultivate purpose amongst their employees, using joint purpose and values as a basis for employee selection and retention.

…purpose amongst consumers

There is also considerable evidence that the human need for purpose extends beyond employment to everyday purchases. The Meaningful Brands Index reveals that brands considered to improve wellbeing and quality of life outperform the stock market by 133% 3. Meaningful Brands provides an insightful look at how meaningful the world’s most well-known brands really are. Similarly, digital trends emphasize the need for co-creation and experience, the need to be part of something bigger. Collaborations across industries and sectors become essential to ensuring the smooth and safe adoption of new innovations that can cater to digital citizens 4.

…purpose amongst employees

We commonly associate the desire for meaning in work with the millennial generation. Indeed, the assumption has considerable traction as findings from the 2014 Deloitte Millennial Survey demonstrate. Deloitte, PwC and others have produced quantitative evidence that the millennial generation want passion, impact and meaning in their working life that outweigh their desire for financial compensation. They want careers that get them jumping out of bed on a cold winter morning and leaving the office late. But millennials aren’t the only ones desiring this. A 2014 McKinsey study revealed the baby boomer generation crave meaning just as much as their younger counterparts. Imperative’s Workforce Purpose Index revealed that the majority of the US’s 42 million purpose-driven workers were women and people over 55 5.

What’s next?

With the intensification of unconditional basic income discussions, rising unemployment in many countries (Maynard’s prediction), debates about useless or purposeless jobs, and growing automation of professional tasks, people are truly beginning to ponder the nature and reasoning behind work. Why do we work? What do we really get from it? Let’s imagine Hurst’s purpose-riddled economy comes to fruition. What can we expect?

First, technology-driven unemployment shrinks the length of the standard working week to just 15 hours. Workers spend more time retraining, either to program machines or to perform non-automated tasks with a creative purpose. Psychological training helps workers maximize their creativity and identify and achieve a shared purpose alongside other members of a team or group.

Being part of something bigger than oneself.

Second, money is no longer a concern as automated production and distribution have driven down the cost of consumer items. This frees up time for individuals to pursue passions, deepen self-awareness and extend their knowledge. Small groups form and devote their time to creating entertainment or learning opportunities for others as demand for learning institutions grows tremendously.

On the spectrum of sustainable business, organizations are assessed according to the purposes they fulfil as well as the profits they generate. Quarterly results are calculated to include a purpose metric. Consumer goods and services all come with a personalized purpose price tag as well as a monetary one. The purpose price tag depends on the primary concerns of the viewer. Ultimate openness and transparency is highly valued, as is the ability of a company to co-create with users and employees. Products and services across industries are co-created with the end user and other stakeholders to ensure all needs are met.

Concluding thoughts

As British philosopher Alan Watts asks in a YouTube video, “What if money was no object?”, a world primarily driven by this type of motivation will have a very different face from the one we live in now. If a wave of purpose is just around the corner, as Hurst predicts, we may need to start rethinking our business models and our personal trajectories. Education and creativity may eventually command an even greater premium, while the traditional working week may fall by the wayside. Automation may free the world to retrain and explore new professional and personal goals. In such a world, money will not vanish – but less of it will be spent on everyday items and more on activities with a broader goal.

  1. Hurst 2014
  2. Purpose as a Survival Strategy in a Shrinking Economy, Simon Mainwaring
  3. Meaningful Brands, website
  4. The 4 Things It Takes to Succeed in the Digital Economy, Harvard Business Review
  5. Is “Purpose” just another buzzword for our workplace?, World Economic Forum