This week a friend sent me an article from The Atlantic about the career travails facing the Millennial Generation. The essential points of the article were: 1) Americans have made a religion out of work in the sense that many of us hope to derive some transcendental meaning or fulfillment from it; 2) Millennials are often unable to enjoy/experience this fulfillment because the job market is bad; and 3) People can and should find meaning in life outside their careers. Feel free to read the article in full, there was more to it, and it’s worth your time. My post today will be my reactions to it.
Is Work a Religion?
I have to tread carefully here because I’m guilty of this. From the age of ten, I’ve wanted to (and have managed to) work. The pay, naturally, is part of it: I’m also a happy free marketeer. I suppose this derives from my personality, as I tend to express my sense of love from doing things for others. In that sense, you could say that work could be my way of expressing the dictum of my formative religion’s instructions to “Love thy neighbor” and to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s not about the money, it’s about the doing.
The article refers to some of the titans of modern industry who pride themselves on working more than ever–as a form of status. Egad. If anything, I’m working fewer hours than I ever did as a corporate guy, but I’m still happily doing my job. And as a freelancer, the work comes unevenly; so when it does come in, work comes first. I know a freelancing couple who have among the happiest marriages I’ve ever seen. They once spent part of an anniversary trip apart because the husband got called in to do a job. He did the job, then went on with the vacation.
Some people would tell me that this is not a healthy way to live, nor is it fair to others if they’re counting on you to be there. Maybe. But when the work is done, I stop. I go read a book or take a walk or write in the journal or watch TV or take vacations. I work to get the job(s) done right, and preferably no more than that. A while back on LinkedIn.com I pushed back on an article that quoted space/automotive/solar entrepreneur Elon Musk, who said the only way to change the world was to work 80-100 hours a week.
Respectfully, I disagree. If you can find constructive ways to “change the world” or make it at least a better place, great. Should it consume your life and all your free hours? I guess it depends on what you’re trying to do. I’d still say no. I’ve gotten a lot less ambitious about world changing; as a result, I do the work I need to as it comes in, then go on to other things that interest me.
Acknowledging the Realities of the Job Market
The big cultural battles in the U.S. seem to occur between the Baby Boomers (born 1946-1961) and Millennials (born 1981-1996). My cadre, Generation X, seems to have vanished from the public consciousness, as noted in a recent CBS News graphic:
Generation X was the first group to be told by the media that they would be “the first generation of Americans to be less well off than their parents,” or words to that effect. The thing is, a lot of us didn’t end up that way. And it wasn’t like we were lacking for obstacles. A lot of us grew up in divorced households (my sister and I did), which was an anomaly in this country up to that point. We grew up with the Watergate mess, the oil embargoes, the Iran hostage crisis, Gulf War I, 9/11, and Gulf War II. With both degrees I managed to finish my last semester in the middle of a war, then graduate during a postwar recession. Jobs, good or otherwise, were not exactly easy to find all the time.
The point of that little history lesson is that I get it: the job market is not always friendly to people seeking their “dream career.” Some lines of work are going away thanks to automation. Others face structural changes thanks to jobs going to places other than the United States or even the West. And some jobs just suck. I didn’t get my first job that did not completely suck until I was 27–and even so, I was answering complaint letters. I was 36 before I finally got a “dream job” with NASA, and I was downsized out of the space business as a full-time profession at 44. But now, as I approach 50 this year, life is going pretty well. Success is still possible, just not necessarily immediately.
Finding Meaning Outside of Work
So what was I doing in my free time when I wasn’t devoted to my career and didn’t always have the “dream jobs?”
I hung out with my friends. I listened to music. I read books. I went to movies. I took what side trips I could afford. I wrote fiction and poetry for my own enjoyment. I looked for “dream job” openings and tried to figure out what I might need to do/be to get those jobs. I did the jobs I had as well as I could to make sure that the bills got paid and that I’d get a good letter of recommendation when I did try for that “dream job.” I still do those things, come to think of it.
This entry became a bit more preachy than I’d intended, and I apologize. The point was to try to explain that the problems were facing are not unique. To return to the original focus of the article, I’ll leave you with these thoughts:
- Overworking should not be your religion.
- The job market has been and always will be uncertain.
- Your life is about more than your career.
And hang in there. If you know what you want to do, you will be on the lookout for–and will find–opportunities to contribute usefully…and do unto others.