Purpose before paycheck? New data says yes!

Picture of Big Picture

New Survey Data Find Graduates Seeking Purpose Before Paycheck

For graduates nationwide wondering what the future will hold for them, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Christine Whelan has some advice: Figure out what matters most to you, why and then how make it happen with her latest book, The Big Picture: A Guide to Finding Your Purpose in Life.

Purpose is crucial to being a adult, report young people – but they don’t feel like they have it, according to a new, national survey that Dr. Whelan, a clinical professor in the School of Human Ecology commissioned for the release of her book.

More than 86% of young adults say that making decisions in line with their purpose makes them an adult, but only 43% say they have a clear picture of what they want in life… and only 30% know why they are here.

And this isn’t good news: Coasting is existing, not thriving. For young adults who don’t have a clear picture of what they want in life, the majority say they are existing not thriving, while those with purpose are more likely to say they are thriving.

Young adults want to do things that are in line with their purpose and passions, but they haven’t figured out what those are yet: Only 36% of 18-24 year olds say that the career path that they have chosen is aligned with their life purpose.

“Research shows that embracing a purpose mindset – identifying how your specific talents and values intersect with the needs of others – in your 20s is correlated with increased well-being in your 30s, so the time is now to think about the ‘big picture’ of your life,” Dr. Whelan says.

According to her national general population survey of more than 700 adults ages 18-59, Dr. Whelan finds that meaningful work is more important than salary for new workers. As they head into the job market, 69% of young adults say that they would be willing to take a cut in pay to work at a job that allowed them to focus on more meaningful work.

“Young adults are prioritizing the ability to pursue their passions at work more so than older workers,” Dr. Whelan says. Her data finds that 18-24 year olds are significantly more likely than adults 25 and older to say that their ideal job is one in which they are able to pursue their personal passions, to integrate work and personal life in meaningful ways, contributes to society as a whole and pays well.

And for those 20-somethings seeks words of wisdom as they head into the adult world, the #1 advice older adults would impart to their 20-year-old self is to make sure you know your purpose before making big decisions.

To help young adults get into a purpose mindset, Whelan drew upon more than 15 years of research in behavior change and self-help. “Successful behavioral change hinges on the synthesis of personal discovery and the ability to translate it into action,” Dr. Whelan says. “So The Big Picture combines research, real-life tests of the efficacy of the exercises with more than 600 students nationwide. To make it more fun, I’ve used a movie schema,” she says.

“You are the star of the documentary of your life, but the plot – the vision and purpose of your actions—is much bigger than you. What are the roles you plan—and what commitments are you making to make it happen? Who’s your supporting cast, and how can they help you along the inevitable plot twists that life will bring? And what’s the theme song and the tagline for this movie?” Dr. Whelan says.

With more than 85% of young-adults still seeking a purpose or a mission for their lives, The Big Picture may be the perfect graduation gift. “Graduates are seeking a vocabulary for their feelings of hope, frustration and excitement, a language for their yearnings of meaningful work and concrete steps to help them make sense of these ‘big questions’ that challenge us all,” Dr. Whelan says.


Christine WhelanDr. Christine B. Whelan, a clinical professor of Consumer Science in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison is available for interviews to discuss this new survey data and its implications for graduates and employers.

Dr. Whelan is the professor for two large and popular classes in the School of Human Ecology, Consuming Happiness, an upper level course, and Belonging, Purpose and the Ecology of Human Happiness, a first-year course. She is also the director of the Money, Relationships and Finance (MORE) initiative.

She is also the author of four books, including The Big Picture, the first research-based small-steps program for young-adults to uncover their own personal sense of purpose. For more information visit: http://www.christinewhelan.com or http://www.thebigpicture.life

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