In his 1759 book “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” Adam Smith observed that human sociality is the taproot of economics. The instinct to “truck, barter and exchange,” Smith argued, arises out of our need for others and is the foundation of what makes us human. Looked at this way, markets are human social behavior “at-scale,” driven by the innate human tendency to trade for mutual development and benefit. 

Data from our most recent report on “The Social Workplace” confirms this close connection between sociality and work. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, 75% consider a welcoming workplace as the most or “one of the most important” or “very important” factors in choosing employment. Fully 72% of mid-career workers and 73% of late-career workers agree.

Pay lags as a factor in job selection, with between 52% and 62% of workers (depending on age) citing pay as a key factor. While money gives people what they need to live, a sense of belonging and connection on the job is what helps them thrive.

So, what exactly is a “welcoming workplace”?

In interviews with respondents, we found that work often helps people build relationships that foster a sense of belonging and contribute to the creation of a supportive social network. As one 25-year-old interviewee said, “Not only is it a job, it’s also yet another community where co-workers are kind of like friends and family, too.” Our survey revealed that a full 77% of 18- to 29-year-olds considered their co-workers as friends or close friends. 

When it comes to workplace relationships and job satisfaction, however, the road isn’t always easy. About half of young workers are completely or very satisfied with their employment situation compared to 59% of those who are later in their career and 74% of those close to retirement. Further, while 58% of individuals aged 18 to 29 expressed a high level of satisfaction with their co-worker relationships, satisfaction tends to grow over time, reaching 63% by late career. 

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One explanation for these trends could be that younger workers may not have had the same amount of time to cultivate workplace relationships. Time, tenure and maturity can help foster meaningful connections within a professional setting. Older workers have also had more time to reflect, plan and pivot their careers — to find their vocation

Working with like-minded individuals on similar causes, topics or problems can allow friendships to form naturally over shared interests and markers of personal identity. This feedback loop can add purpose and dignity to work and personal life as one’s core calling is expressed and reinforced through the daily routines of work. Our data suggests that such supportive relationships are part of being in a mission-led workplace that can positively affect coworkers and their community. As one 28-year-old interviewee shared, “I’m glad I am with an employer who cares about having an impact on a community and about building community with my office.”

A welcoming work environment tends to create positive feedback loops in other areas of life. As our previous survey work has shown, those more deeply anchored in their personal social community also tend to be the most socially active at work as well. The habits of successful relationships we learn at home find their way into our work relationships, and vice versa.

Throughout our reports on sociality and work, we’ve sought to make explicit what is usually unseen or unnoticed: jobs, offices and other work sites are important elements in helping people learn habits of interpersonal connection and more fully express their humanity, both of which add stability and richness to life. Businesses exist to produce goods and services and create value for shareholders and communities. But work is also integral to who we are as people. Those two realities are intertwined and inseparable, and they can only flourish together.

Brent Orrell is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute studying vocations, careers and work. Hunter Dixon is a research assistant at AEI.