LEWISTON — Bates College, a pioneer in a growing movement to help students find happiness in their lives by aligning who they are with what they do for work, is pushing for others to follow its lead.

The value of finding what Bates calls “purposeful work” is at the heart of a report unveiled Wednesday by Bates and Gallup during a learning session at the polling firm’s headquarters in the nation’s capital.

Four out of five college graduates told pollsters that finding a sense of purpose in the work they do is crucial to their well-being. But less than half of them say they’ve succeeded in finding what they’re looking for in a job, namely something that connects them with a larger mission rather than merely collecting a paycheck.

Graph from a new report by Bates College and Gallup that shows 80% of young workers with college degrees consider it very important or extremely important to have jobs that give them purpose.

That “purpose gap” — which leaves nearly a third of graduates unsatisfied in their jobs — is a key finding in the new 45-page report.

Clayton Spencer, president of Bates, called the gulf between graduates’ hopes and reality “a glaring problem for the younger workforce, as millennials place a higher priority on purpose in their lives than previous generations, and they look to work more than other sources to find it.”

Closing the gap “between book learning and work” is a task colleges must take on for the future well-being of their students, she said.


The new report, “Forging Pathways to Purposeful Work,” calls for educators to do more to provide students with internships and job shadowing opportunities to give them a greater chance to reflect on what they’re looking for as they begin careers.

In essence, the initiative calls for a pathway between college and whatever comes next, a deliberate effort to boost the chances that students will be happy about more than just the money when they’re collecting salaries someday.

Bates has already plunged into the role of trying to instill self-reflection and meaning into students’ search for suitable work.

Its classes are often visited by “real world” experts and its students frequently involved in projects that bring them into the community, exposing them to life outside the cushy confines of an elite college.

Spencer mentioned, for example, a French professor with an interest in African issues whose students wound up going into Lewiston to work directly with French-speaking refugees who have been coming to the city in growing numbers.

The idea, Spencer said, is to infuse classes with the perspectives that outsiders can bring, that help push students to consider what they want and how they can achieve those goals. The study found graduates who are highly reflective about their work are far more content in their jobs.


“The self-reflection piece is really important,” George Mason University professor Patrick McKnight said at the Gallup event. “If you have that trust in yourself and your direction, that’s a big part of finding purpose.”

The study determined that “finding purpose in one’s work is not merely a ‘nice to have’ aspect of employment, but an increasingly essential component of creating a thriving and productive workforce.”

“Purpose in work not only confers substantial benefits to the individual, it is valued by employers who recognize the superior performance of purposeful workers contributing to the mission and bottom line of their organization,” it concluded.

Bates has pressed the idea of purposeful work since Spencer took the helm at the liberal arts college in 2012. It created a Center for Purposeful Work five years ago that aims to prepare students “for lives of meaningful work.”

President Clayton Spencer poses in her Lane Hall office for a portrait. (Photo provided)

The center seeks to promote both a pragmatic and a probing approach to work to help students figure out what their future should hold.

It’s a notion that grew out of the recession a decade ago, when the economy shuddered and shrunk, leaving a legacy of unease that still resonates despite record-low unemployment.


That unease “is easy to understand,” Spencer said. “We live in a world defined by complexity, uncertainty and volatility. Driven largely by technology, the rate of change continues to accelerate.”

At the same time, “our global interdependence has risen markedly, even as our ability to solve pressing world problems — like climate change or economic crises — seems to be diminishing,” she said.

It’s that environment that has put work front and center for many educators who might once have been willing to trust that a solid liberal arts background would suffice.

At Bates, college officials have been trying to slip in work experience and some careful thought about future opportunities into the four years that its students spend in Lewiston, including its attempts to offer “internships on steroids” to get more students to try them and extend opportunities to those whose families don’t have easy access to the sort of informal networks that often give a leg up to wealthier young people.

Spencer said the purposeful work framework helps Bates graduates “navigate the evolving worlds of work” to find employment “that aligns with their interests, values and strengths and brings them meaning.”

Bates undertook the study with Gallup “to test the premises” of its purposeful work program “and to refine it based on what we learned,” Spencer said.


Experts have said for years that the old-style career paths of earlier generations have largely vanished. U.S. Department of Labor statistics show the average college graduate will likely hold 11 or more jobs before reaching age 50, some of them positions that don’t yet exist on graduation day.

Given that reality, Spencer said, “the ability to sustain work over a lifetime will increasingly depend” on individual initiative.

Art and visual culture major Samantha Fellers ’19 of Mendham, N.J., is a purposeful work intern in development and membership, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. (Photo provided)

She said colleges have a responsibility to teach more than facts and interpersonal skills. They also need to instill “a mindset of informed self-determination and adaptability” so students can cope with the world they are plunging into after leaving academia.

Gallup found that younger workers are more likely to seek satisfaction from their work than previous generations, who sometimes found purpose in volunteer activities or helping others outside the job.

As a result, younger college graduates expect more from their employer than older ones.

Gallup found that when young millennials who graduated from college are asked about their regrets from student days, many answered that they wished they had more chances to intern and job shadow.


The study pointed out that 63% of the millennials with degrees had interned during college — a significantly higher rate than for baby boomers and Generation X students.

Gallup said the finding shows young workers “place high priority on both finding purpose in their work and gaining real-world work experiences,” something many colleges already emphasize.

The report called on educators to encourage students “to think deeply about their future work early in their college careers” while also “promoting more internships and applied learning experiences to support students’ active and ongoing consideration of their future work.”

It also urged academic leaders to give students “realistic expectations for their job prospects given their degree program and discipline.”

Spencer said, “Higher education has a central role to play in improving the life prospects of individuals and thereby strengthening our economy and society as a whole. Colleges and universities need to embrace this role with renewed energy, imagination and, yes, purpose.”



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