What motivates us to work?

People go to work for money, but that’s not the only reason.¹ Our careers can be a major part of our lives, and many people find fulfillment and satisfaction in the workplace. Other’s don't. When you ask young people what they want to do when they grow up, a lot of them are probably going to think not just about how much money they’ll earn, but also about the things they like to do, or how they think they can feel useful.

Economics traditionally treats work as an entirely unpleasant thing that people only do to make money. But some economists are starting to do experiments to see how true this actually is.² One experiment asked people to play simple games and rewarded them for how well they did. The catch was, for some people the potential reward was very high (up to $300), and for others it was relatively modest (up to $30). For games that only required routine repetition (like typing the same letters over and over), people offered a higher reward did better. But surprisingly, for games that required reasoning or creativity (like solving a puzzle), the people offered the higher reward did worse.

Another study tried to rank the most important factors for motivation.³ Apparently the number one thing is whether we find our work interesting. Then, in ranking order, it’s all about whether we have good wages, job security, good working conditions, opportunities for promotions and growth in the organization and a feeling of inclusiveness within the company. Economics often comes down to finding out what people’s end goal is when deciding what to do with their time and skills and trying to work out the best way to achieve it – understanding the nuances of why people go to work every day plays a huge role in doing this right.