Millennials are on a quest to find meaningful work — and they're willing to take less pay to get it

One survey found that Canadian office workers would give up an pay raise of more than $9,000 annually if it meant that they could do work that's more meaningful to them.

Survey says nearly half would forgo a pay raise of $9K to do work they consider more meaningful

Ashley Tilley of Toronto, seen by the Tower Bridge in London in 2016, counts herself among the millennials who are willing to trade money for more meaningful work on their own terms. She has just resigned from her full-time marketing job to run her own web design and marketing consultancy, Solo Web Design. (Submitted by Ashley Tilley )

Millennial workers want their jobs to hold meaning, and nearly half of them would trade a lucrative raise for a position where they could make a greater impact, new research has found.

An online survey of more than 1,500 Canadian office workers found that 47 per cent of millennial respondents would give up a pay raise for more meaningful work. Of those who'd forgo the raise, the average amount they'd give up was $9,639. 

Conducted January 12 to 19 by Legerweb on behalf of ServiceNow — which makes cloud-based software for workplaces — the sample has an estimated margin of error of +/- 2.2 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

Demographers define the millennial generation as those born between 1980 and 1995.

Marc LeCuyer, general manager for ServiceNow's Canadian operations, said traditional career goals such as achieving an impressive salary, title or corner office, just aren't resonating with millennials. 

"They're saying 'I want purpose in my work, I want to be doing meaningful work, and if I'm going to spend this much time in the office over the course of my life, I want it to be important and impactful, and I want to be at my best.'"

Marc LeCuyer, general manager of Canadian operations for ServiceNow, which makes cloud-based software for workplaces, says millennials have brought about a values shift in the workplace, one more focused on meaning than on nabbing an impressive title or corner office. (Submitted by ServiceNow)

Of course, it's a privilege to even be able to consider a pay cut of more than $9,000 when so many Canadians are living paycheque to paycheque.

The most recent Canadian Payroll Association report found that in 2018, 44 per cent of Canadians said they'd find it difficult to meet their financial obligations if their pay was delayed for even one week. 

Nevertheless, millennials have made the quest for meaning more central to life at work.

Where Gen Xers may have been resigned to accept their company's culture, the recent "war on talent" caused by the mass exodus of baby boomers from the workforce has changed things, LeCuyer said.

"There's isn't enough Gen Xers to come up through the ranks and fill all those gaps, which is becoming a challenge, and you've got the millennial workforce coming in that are just different thinkers," he said. Part of that different outlook includes a distaste for time-wasting busywork or menial tasks.  

"They look at mundane tasks as things that are demotivating to their day-to-day. They're often frustrated because they're the ones that have to do them, and they want to focus on work that has purpose." 

A growth mindset

In addition to wanting to find work meaningful, millennials say they care a lot about learning and growing on the job.

A separate Angus Reid Forum survey conducted for digital career coaching platform Prosper, found that 35 per cent of Canadian respondents don't believe their employer provides them with the necessary support to expand their professional skills.

That's particularly troubling for millennials, said Prosper founder and CEO Krystyn Harrison.

Prosper's online survey of 1,000 Canadians, conducted March 8 to 10, found that respondents in the millennial age bracket had spent an average of 50 hours developing a new skill in the past year, compared to an overall average of 15 hours.

As a millennial myself I would say we're a very ambitious generation that is often very misunderstood in the workplace.- Krystyn Harrison, founder and CEO of Prosper

Harrison said people in this demographic group have become accustomed to continuous learning, not only because they value that growth, but because it's been necessary to stay competitive given the pace of technological change.

"Anything we learned 10 years ago is obsolete and in the last five years, anything we've learned is redundant," she said.

Despite these efforts to keep abreast of change, this cohort has been subject to criticism about their approach to work.

"As a millennial myself I would say we're a very ambitious generation that is often very misunderstood in the workplace."

With the pace of change, precarious employment and other factors at play in the current labour market, young people are looking for fit and growth instead.

"One of the things that we've had to do out of necessity is look for purpose in our careers, look for values," said Harrison. "These are important to all generations, but the millennial generation has really brought that to the forefront and demanded more from work than a pay cheque."

Among those values shifts is the importance her peers place on maintaining some semblance of work-life balance.

That's certainly the case for Toronto marketing professional Ashley Tilley who has just quit her full-time job to run her own web design and marketing consultancy. Friday was her last day on the job for a firm based in Pickering, Ont., an hour from Tilley's condo in Toronto.

Tilley, seen here exploring a waterfall in Bali, Indonesia, in December 2018, is starting her own company in part so she can spend more time travelling. (Submitted by Ashley Tilley)

It's not the first time she has traded cash for work she'll enjoy more. In 2017, while living in the U.K., she left an in-house marketing job at a large supermarket chain. "I was getting paid a ridiculous amount of money and I left and took a job at a charity." 

Back in Canada for the past few years, Tilley said she's "struggled with corporate and having to commute into the same job and be chained to a desk."

As digital natives who've come to expect to be able to take advantage of the conveniences offered by technology, she and her peers really value things like being able to work from home and to hit Costco on a Tuesday when it's less busy, she said. "It's 2019 and companies are still requiring you commute for an hour in traffic."

Tilley, who loves to travel, said she looks forward to being able to take longer trips and work from remote locations. She's careful to note that living with her partner is helping to make this happen.

While she launches her new business, Solo Web Design, the couple are giving up her reliable salary in favour of flexibility to work on projects and with clients Tilley likes from anywhere they want to be.

"It's having the freedom and independence and if I want to go to Asia and work remotely for three weeks I don't have to ask for time off."


Brandie Weikle


Brandie Weikle is a writer and editor for CBC Radio based in Toronto. She joined CBC in 2016 after a long tenure as a magazine and newspaper editor. Brandie covers a range of subjects but has special interests in health, family and the workplace. You can reach her at