What Motivates You to Work? Chances Are, It’s Not What It Used to Be

Greetings from Washington, D.C.

Throughout my just concluded 20-year career in executive recruitment, one constant remained in all of my thousands of interactions with professional talent. Of them, I asked: what motivates you to get out of bed each day and go to work?

In my early years of recruitment, the answers tended to follow a predictable if not linear pattern: those who identified money or financial gain as their employment motivation tended to seek sales, sales management, and business development roles while those who identified most with tackling difficult challenges or uncovering useful business insight favored operations, business administration, account management, or research and analysis-based work opportunities. Back then, the motivations of skilled and experienced professionals often led them directly to great opportunities and career scaling achievement. And, recognizing their motivations helped headhunters like me to achieve successful placements that often resulted in long tenures for our candidates.

But, in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, something seismic shifted the determinative power of work motivation and altered what gets us out of bed each day, ready for another day on the job.

While the economy resumed its forward path during the latter months of 2009, the American workforce’s own recovery — from a low point of near 10 percent unemployment — took many more years to materialize. As business enterprises recovered, fewer of them than before the Great Recession invested their revenue gains into hiring more talent, or, paying the talent that they already had higher salaries and more benefits. Instead they built up their cash reserves to record levels. Talent who found themselves out of work for months and years struggled to reconnect with new roles in their familiar industries; often, they took on side-hustles (gigs) doing contracting work or finding full-time employment outside of their specialization. Some of my past placements who lost jobs cast wide nets, entering public school teaching accreditation programs. Some others became registered nurses or Realtors selling homes and commercial properties. Talent who felt lucky to be spared the pink slip carried on with stiff upper lips, accepting more responsibility and without the benefit of added salary, benefits, or a more senior title.

Often, the work done by them turned meaningless.

In the ten years that have passed since the Great Recession began something else happened. What motivates us to work each day changed dramatically. In January of 2017, Pew Research published The State of the American Dream: Financial Stability and Mobility. In it, we discover that a staggering 92 percent of working Americans now believe that the American Dream of upward mobility is long gone, replaced by a new, soberer American Dream that is built on financial stability and mobility.

As a result of the New American Dream, what motivates us now is less monetary upside and more about making sure that we can weather a sudden financial crisis without breaking our personal cash reserves and retirement accounts.

Taken further, we have grown to accept the fact that our earning power from annual raises is much less than what we had in years past, because our medical premium co-pays and other employee contributions have increased well beyond the annual rate of inflation. Many of us have lost considerably our on-the-job earning power.

what motivates you to work

Daniel Pink, the New York Times’ best-selling author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, sheds great insight into the radical changes affecting what gets us out of bed each morning.

In his book, Pink notes that money is not the be all, end all, that it used to be. Instead, what has increasingly motivated us to do the work that we do is a sense of connectedness to the hiring company, respect and support received by us from the hiring manager, and perhaps most of all, a clear indication that the work that we do serves a greater good — that we derive from it profound meaning that helps people in need and makes the planet a better place to live.

Millennials, now the largest and most active part of the American workforce, are highly predisposed to joining companies that align with their goals of doing meaningful work; this is forcing companies seeking the best talent to make their supply chains more environmentally sustainable, serve their communities in truly socially responsible and impactful ways, and, as authors Mike Hais and Morley Winograd point out, to provide hired talent with workplace and workday flexibility that turns work into a rewarding part of the day — not the day.

One of the reasons that I ended my successful recruitment career to become an author, podcast host, and workforce advocate was that I determined that there are few if any resources helping American workers to satisfy their new motivation to find and achieve meaningful work. And, I felt that I could help to fulfill that very important workforce need. Understanding what motivates us — what gets us out of bed each morning to start a new workday — has indeed changed. And it has never been more important.

Let me be clear: money remains an important motivation for a considerable portion of the American workforce. But, understanding our expanded and less linear motivational frame is key to us all finding and doing work that is profound in mission, meaningful, and blissful.

Our best days lie ahead.

DAN SMOLEN is executive producer and host of the podcast, The Tightrope with Dan Smolen, which is available on Apple Podcasts and DanSmolen.com.

Image credits: Work Motivation, Getty Images; Drive book cover, Daniel Pink and Riverhead Books, 2011.