Millennials are a generation much-maligned for their work ethic. When they first began to enter the workforce, they had a reputation for being lazy or disengaged, with short attention spans and an inability to focus amid distractions. Employers and older colleagues felt that these young professionals were impatient, eager to gain promotion or be heard at work without first putting in the hours.
Like all stereotypes, this reputation had elements of truth mixed with healthy exaggeration. And a cross-generational study indicated that rather than having a weak work ethic, millennials had a different interpretation of the concept altogether.
Millennials place a premium on purpose, and they exert their utmost when work is meaningful and companies embody values and ethics rather than mere profit. But as they, together with younger cohorts, gradually come to comprise the bulk of the workforce, they may struggle to build a career built on purposeful, ethical pursuits.
The why generation
Behind the search for purpose lies a deep-rooted drive for millennials and Gen Zers to understand the why of things. Collectively, these young workers can be called the “Why Generation.” It’s just not in their nature to accept things and proceed blindly as instructed.
The Why Generation is full of digital natives whose inquisitiveness leads to innovation, and they know it. They might question everything, but only because they want to know the underlying reasons, figure out how they fit in the big picture, and what can be done to improve. This is why they are known for seeking authenticity, truth, and personalization in their experiences, and it informs their actions in the world.
To them, work should be an extension of yourself. If a company doesn’t live up to its values and provide meaningful contributions to the greater whole, it ends up disengaging its young talent. Unfortunately, change happens slowly, and even as the Why Generation’s share of the labor pool grows, these young professionals may not be able to reconcile their values with their jobs.
Finding purpose and ethical fit
The problem in many organizations right now is that desirable work is in short supply. Few jobs offer the critical mix of qualities that most young workers seek. That includes meaningful tasks, opportunities for growth, a genuine voice in the company, and a culture aligned with their values.
If a job happens to meet those criteria, you can be certain that there’s stiff competition for that position. Often, having a degree or some work experience won’t be enough. You have to be intentional about amassing career capital.
The Why Generation might not be able to land their dream jobs right away. But if you look closely, you might find that any job offers the chance to make a difference. If you work at an auto shop, for instance, you can procure some portable wash bays for sale and use them to contain water runoff. Repurpose that gray water, and you can create cost savings for your company while also having a sense of purpose by helping the environment.
Thus, young workers can exercise their agency even as they move through a series of jobs, embodying their values and imparting meaning to otherwise mundane work. As they make headway in their careers, staying engaged through such efforts will emerge as an intangible quality. It will help distinguish them and make the connections that can eventually land them meaningful jobs at value-centered companies.
Climbing the second mountain
Realistically, though, many young professionals face the prospect of either never achieving truly purposeful, ethical work or only doing so at the tail end of their careers.
Nietzsche once said that if you have a “why,” you have the strength to endure any “how.” For any young person just starting on their career path, however, they aren’t just searching for a “why.” They must also earn a living and carve status for themselves in a world of inequality.
To make that seemingly insurmountable task possible, we need to differentiate our goals. Recognize that in our lives, according to author David Brooks, we climb two mountains. The first mountain represents the individualistic pursuit of happiness and fulfillment. On the other hand, the second mountain is all about relational happiness, embracing togetherness and interdependence.
Almost everyone starts out trying to achieve both these goals simultaneously. But our careers offer a limited path that seldom leads us up the second mountain.
Finding your “why” might not happen within the context of your career. However, you can be deliberate in your commitments outside of work. In your choice of vocation, your relationships with your family and community, and your dedication to faith or philosophy, your life can remain grounded in meaning and values. And in turn, that can relieve you of the pressure of finding purpose in your career.