It’s hard enough for 30-year-olds like me to find any job in today’s job market. Finding meaningful work is even more challenging. One in four adults between 18 and 34 years old say they have moved back in with their parents after living on their own and according to the Pew Research Center, only 54% of American adults ages 18 to 25 are currently employed, the lowest percentage since the government began collecting data 60 years ago. Breaking from tradition, my generation may grow up to be less wealthy than our parents’ generation.
Every generation probably feels like it has gotten the short end of the stick, but critics really love to hate on millennials. They call us the lazy generation, the entitled generation, and the "me me me generation." Based on the young people I know, these stereotypes couldn’t be farther from the truth. Millennials want to work—and despite being shackled by debt, recession, and the jobs crisis—they aren’t motivated by money. Rather, they’re driven to make the world more compassionate, innovative, and sustainable.
When I interviewed dozens of millennials about their career choices for The Quarter-Life Breakthrough, not once did someone answer that they wanted to "make lots of money," "have lots of power," or "retire with a pension in 40 years."
Rather, they said things like: "I want to teach urban teenagers how to avoid debt and become successful entrepreneurs," "I want to inspire young girls to think they can become engineers, and not Barbie dolls," "I want to teach kids living in a food desert how to grow their own food," and "I want to ensure large corporations reduce their carbon footprint."
These young people aren’t motivated by climbing the career ladder or their stock options. The majority of millennials have already changed careers and over 90% of millennials expect to stay in a job for fewer than three years. As Nathaniel Koloc, co-founder and CEO of ReWork—a talent firm that places purpose-seeking professionals in social impact jobs—says, "There is no clear way ‘up’ anymore, it’s just a series of projects or jobs, one after another. You can move in any direction, the only question is how you’re devising your strategy of where to move and where you can ‘land,’ i.e., what you’re competitive for."
Young people aren’t waiting for retirement. They’re asking what their purpose is now, and they’re determined to find the opportunities, organizations, and companies that share their purpose. A recent study by Net Impact showed that the millennial generation expects to make a difference in the world through their work, and more than half of millennials would take a 15% pay cut to do work for an organization that matches their values.
We aren’t the "me me me generation." We’re a group of determined individuals who refuse to settle because we know how great our impact can be when we find work we truly care about.
So, how do you actually find meaningful work? How do you land a job (or start a company) that contributes to society (and pays the bills)?
First, it’s important to accept that there is no right answer or cure-all when it comes to finding meaningful work. Everyone is different and our purpose is constantly evolving as we meet new people, learn new things, and travel to new places. The millennials profiled in my book have done everything from register thousands of first-time voters, fight for immigrant rights, leave a nonprofit for a tech company, and leave a tech company for a nonprofit. Any kind of work can be meaningful: the challenge is discovering what purpose makes you come alive.
Based on my interviews, I discovered that meaningful work allows you to 1) share your gifts, 2) make an impact in the lives of others, and 3) live your desired quality of life. Getting these three components to align is the goal, but it’s certainly not easy.
Here are four lessons learned from impact-driven millennials that can help you pursue work that matters.
Alex McPhillips left his lucrative job writing about the Boston Red Sox for MLB.com to volunteer on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign because he was tired of writing about baseball and wanted to join a political campaign he believed in. That volunteer experience eventually turned into a paid job on the campaign, a staff position in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, and then a job managing social media for the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Seek opportunities that excite you and inspire you to wake up in the morning. Build a purposeful career by experimenting with opportunities you actually care about.
Meaningful careers are made up of personal journeys to get closer to who we are and what we value. Upon graduation, Tom D’Eri considered positions in corporate social responsibility, but the corporate world didn’t excite him. Instead, he went back to an idea he had in college that was inspired by his brother Andrew, who has autism. Although his brother is a vibrant young man, Tom saw his brother’s disability put him at a clear disadvantage when it came to securing meaningful employment. So alongside his father, Tom built Rising Tide Car Wash in south Florida, which employs and empowers people with autism. The family business provides people of all ability levels an opportunity to build a career and an independent life. By picking a cause near to his heart, Tom embarked on a journey to build a business that provides personal meaning to him, as well as meaning to his employees and customers.
Skills often get people hired. Research (see Daniel Pink’s Drive or Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You) has shown that people who find fulfilling work are good at what they do and have mastered a particular craft or talent. But what happens when you’re really good at your job and still feel stuck or unfulfilled?
This was the case for Deepa Subramaniam, who worked as a product manager for a tech company for 10 straight years following college. During her 10th year at the company, she began to get restless and eager for a career change. Subramaniam decided to outside her comfort zone and started hanging out with a lot of people in the social impact space where she realized that many organizations, both nonprofit and for-profit, could use her particular skills and strengths. She noticed an opening for charity: water’s director of product, and used her new network to get connected to the leadership team and eventually land the position. Subramaniam took the skills she had gained from over 10 years working in tech as a product manager, and applied them to a new role as director of product for a clean water nonprofit.
If you need to develop a new skill, start learning now. In-person and online platforms like General Assembly, Code Academy, Skillshare, and Coursera, are a great place to start. Skills allow you to take your career in multiple directions, which is ever more important in an unstable job market.
Two years ago, I met a 26-year-old named Betsy Nuñez while I was mentoring at the Dell Summer Social Innovation Lab. Betsy, who grew up in a military family, was helping her sister Emily, 24, an active-duty U.S. army officer, prototype her idea for a sustainable fashion company called Sword & Plough. The company makes stylish bags out of recycled military surplus fabric and creates employment opportunities for U.S. military veterans in their supply chain and manufacturing process.
Being around other purpose-driven young people inspired Betsy to embrace her fears, leave her consulting job, and join Sword & Plough full-time. Less than a month after Betsy left her job to work with her sister full-time, she and her sister launched a Kickstarter campaign, and within two hours of being live, exceeded their $20,000 goal. After a month, they raised over $312,000 from 1,500 backers. To date, the company has supported 35 veteran jobs, recycled over 15,000 pounds of military surplus, and made over 1,700 stylish bags for consumers all over the country.
Betsy and Deepa found meaningful work by surrounding themselves with supportive communities made up of purpose-driven individuals. More and more millennials are turning to organizations like ReWork, Imperative, Echoing Green, Net Impact, and B Lab for resources like social impact job boards, career planning tools, and regional networking events. Far from being the "me me me generation," young people are the driving force behind a new economy that puts meaning before money.