Millennials Didn’t Start the Fire
Previous generations re-envisioned the purpose of marriage. Now we’re doing it for work.
There’s an article making the rounds about why younger generations are unhappy in the workforce. The theory is that we were raised to believe that we are special and thus every job feels disappointing compared to our grandiose vision for our unique futures.
I tend to think that’s hokum.
First off, determining an entire generation’s perspective based on parenting or educational techniques that may or may not have been widespread and were undoubtedly applied differently seems like a bit of a stretch. Secondly, any time you diagnose a wide swath of people with a joint fault, you probably need to reflect on your internal biases. That’s a good lesson for all of us about any group.
What shapes entire generations are things that happened to all of them. From 9/11 to the internet, millennials have become acquainted with the world through extraordinary events.
When it comes to their work happiness, this certainly holds true. My generation saw the effects of a crumbling, old-school corporate structure that at one point in time actually gave employees a legitimate reason (hello, pensions!) to stay in a job that wasn’t super-fantastic-fun-time. Also, around the time many of us were old enough to understand finances, we saw our parents’ savings get skull-fucked through the economic crisis that ravaged the country and still haunts us to this day.
It showed us the meaninglessness of chasing illusory security that can be snatched from us in a moment. It showed us that working for an employer tirelessly means nothing if they can — and in all likelihood would — easily trash you if you did something horrific like earn too much.
Whatever the catalyst was for our generation’s changing career paradigm, one thing is for certain: We want to find a job with a purpose. According to a study by the (good?) people of Deloitte, over half of millennials would take lower pay to find a job that aligns with their values, while 90% want to use their skills for good.
You should hear the older generations talk about this shift. I heard one just last night. “It’s work,” he bellowed. “Who thinks that work is supposed to be fun and fulfilling all the time?” He shook his head in disbelief. I smiled to myself, because I happen to know this man has been married three times.
You see, the older generations did exactly what we are trying to do with work — they just did it in other areas of life. Before our parents and grandparents, marriage was primarily a pragmatic agreement that helped ensure food and finances for survival. It wasn’t until recently that couples began to reshape marriage as a place to find passion and intimacy. When older people mock you for not being able to find your way in a career, perhaps you should remind them that haven’t done a real bang-up job of the whole “passionate marriage” change-over. Eminem said it wonderfully: “You fucking do-gooders, too bad you couldn’t do good at marriage.”
Now, millennials are extending this concept of finding a meaningful relationship and seeking passion in all facets of our life, not just marriage but in work as well. What can we say, we learned from the best.
Almost every past generation has picked a societal institution to blow up and rebuild. The trouble is, unlike marriage, we are trying to redesign an institution when we are at the bottom rung of it. So yeah, there are some growing pains, which have nothing to do with selfishness. In fact, remind me again why it’s selfish that we want to use our skills for good?
Since many have discounted us as entitled and self-obsessed, I believe it would be productive for all of us millennials to discuss, in the parlance of Nicki Minaj, “what’s good” when it comes to work. We’re rebuilding the idea of work as a societal structure, so what does it mean to use our skills for good? What does it look like?
My sister worked with developmentally disabled individuals to help them find activities to grow their independence and self-worth. One athlete would call her almost everyday and leave a voicemail. Sometimes he would simply make her laugh: “FUCK! It’s cold outside!” Other times, he would make her cry. “I just want you to know what a good job you do, okay? You do a really, really good job.”
The same job’s administrators devalued her and underpaid her to the point that she was barely able to make ends meet, partially thanks to her burdensome student loans. Every day she was tortured about her unsure future and how she would ever get her head above water, financially speaking. She dealt with angry volunteers and protective parents. Her weekends were often spent working.
So here’s what I want you to ask yourself. Was her job good? Was she helping all developmentally disabled people find a better life? Or was she only helping a fraction of people in incremental and fleeting ways? Did her role matter? Could anyone do it? What about her economic problems — surely those can’t be good? At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter.
All that mattered were the voicemails. They were purpose enough for her.
But not all jobs are rainbows and feelings. My husband keeps his nose in Excel spreadsheets all day. It sounds terrible to some, but he is helping his nonprofit healthcare organization achieve higher efficiency through data. Because of him, they are able to serve more families better while charging them less for vital health services. He didn’t have to scale a mountain or be a bad-ass, TEDx-speaking creative to help people. His contribution to the world came via his nerdy, boring skills. For him, that’s purpose enough.
We have to broaden our definition of happiness and fulfillment if we hope to create sustainable change that everyone can participate in and respect. Until the robots come to fan and feed us all day, we need to work. And we can make the most of it by addressing our new vision of work with a different set of metrics.
We can value depth of reach instead of scope of reach in how we help people.
We can quit looking at any time as “waste.” When you’re “wasting” your life in a cubicle, what you’re really doing is squandering numerous opportunities to help, grow, create and become better.
We can realize that anything, from travelling the world to being a mechanic or a CPA, can be dull and frustrating at some points and amazingly wonderful at others.
At the end of the day, remember that your skills have a place in the world. It’s your job (and not your boss’ or company’s job) to find it and to make your own meaning. Seeking fulfillment isn’t stupid; it also isn’t new. Every generation has bucked an institution or sacred cow. Ours is work. And if anyone wants to get smug about it, ask them why they married their spouse. It might sound a lot like why you pick a career: to find passion and fulfillment. Just make sure it’s enough purpose for you and we just might make it after all.