2014-04-16

4 Tips To Help Millennials Find Meaningful Work

Young people today want to do work with purpose. If you're having a hard time finding that, these lessons can help.

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.

Read more from Poswolsky in his book The Quarter-Life Breathrough

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.

1: Practice intentional experimentation

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.

2: Know who you are

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.

3: Use skills as leverage

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.

4: Find impact-driven communities to support you

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.

Adapted from The Quarter-Life Breakthrough, available on Amazon. Resources, including job boards and suggested reading, are available at thequarterlifebreakthrough.com.

[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

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19 Comments

  • I enjoyed your article. I'm currently writing up my dissertation on how individuals can find meaning through everyday work activities. I am of the belief that there is meaning to be found in any job and that's a very useful message to get across. It is not always useful to put out all this staff about search for your passion/purpose and so on - in fact, searching for meaning can lead to a decrease in happiness. I would add that organisations can help individuals by raising their consciousness about what they find satisfying about their current role and helping them identify/create more opportunities to do it. In my research it is mentoring which has helped a group of older professionals experience purpose, meaning, joy, satisfaction vicariously through the success of their mentees. In half my group it has involved tears of joy - how wonderful. Many people would not consider something so everyday could provide such a response. Don't go searching for meaning - you might be disappointed.

  • RaeAnn Handshy

    Two thoughts I'd add to this fantastic article...

    1. How we choose to think about work is very important. Work is meaningful because we choose to believe that it is. What we focus on grows. So if we focus on what energizes, motivates and inspires us, that focus will become a natural guide to experiencing more meaning in our work.

    2. We need to focus less on "finding" meaningful work and more on creating meaningful work. The magic of our individuality is that we each have a unique mix of strengths, motivators, experiences, perspectives and personality traits that enable us to bring something entirely distinct into the world. It is this diversity of genius that leads to innovation, progress and the emergence of new necessities, luxuries, products, services and experiences that command and generate value in the marketplace.

  • The reality is, not everyone just gets to find "meaningful work"(eg. work which'll advance your career) as a young adult.

    Fact is, for the few who get lucky, everyone else needs to do it the hard way, and that is - flip burgers, sweep floors, stock shelves and wait tables to pay off your student loans. Everyone starts somewhere, and that's at the bottom.

    One does not suddenly jump into a marketing director role just because you have a degree. And you can't even just get a job as a junior business analyst when you have zero experience in the field. Time to sell some Cutco Knives for some MLM and get some grunt experience first.

  • What used to work doesn't anymore. period. This article is nice because it encourages young'uns to pursue meaningful work that is valuable and to escape being trapped in the old economy.

    There is definitely value in paying your dues, working hard and learning from those who have come before you.

    However, this comment reflects the unfortunate tendency of the olds to assume that those young kids who are coming up the pipeline have the same wants and needs and even the same economic and social realities of those who came before.

    With the cost of higher education skyrocketing, flipping burgers for a summer is no longer enough to pay for tuition, or often even basic living costs. And there are many, many young people eager to gain experience who are actively being exploited by industries who feel like they no longer need to pay for entry-level workers, aspiring to knife selling might be the most that many can hope to make for a long time. Why not try to find a new way?

  • Michael DeHart

    I whole heartedly agree there is no right way to find meaningful work & I'm not sure we can/should try to define what that is.

    I believe because more people are searching for a meaningful career (in a new job or by pushing on their employers to be better corporate citizens) the more jobs & organizations are naturally shifting to providing a more meaningful work environment.

    I know it's not going to happen overnight, but we're seeing the shift as organizations big & small are proving it's possible to push sustainability, give back to the community & treat their employees exceptionally while still being profitable.

    Pretty soon they'll be no excuses for organizations because meaningful work helps retain top talent & top talent drives profits. On top of that companies like Wegmans and Zappos are proving that the industry doesn't matter. Business models don't need to change to make a difference.

    So keep searching and fighting for a meaningful career however you get there!

  • Scott Nushart

    Perhaps there is a real need for a refined definition of 'meaningful work', rather than assigning it the moniker of being new and improved. I got my undergrad degree at 23 and had the great honor to work loading furniture semi's in the sun. The goal was a chance to get into a management training slot-which I did.

    This was followed by 2 years of doing accounting intern type work in the sales division, hoping for the next step (which never came). I shifted into the wild world of manufacturing, and spent my time buffing metal and sawing ferrite, which led to a role in customer service. That role led to a role as sales manager, followed by VP of sales and marketing, traveling 70,000+ miles per year, selling all over the world-for 18 years.

    I created, not found, my meaningful work by working into it, and doing some really crummy things to have to get there. I surely did not deign to advise others at age 30 how 'best' to do anything!

  • I'm sorry, but when an article starts out with the same doom and gloom "stats" that have become a cultural neologism for my generation, I have a hard time having respect for what comes after it.

    First of all, at what point in history has a percentage of young adults (however big or small) not moved back home with their parents? Maybe in the outlier mid 20th century when the economy was booming post WWII. But we haven't been in that situation in quite a while, we were never before, and we may never be again.

    But maybe I digress. The thing that gets my craw is treating the course of life that HAS ALWAYS been as some sort of modern aberration, as some sort of problem. Nothing wrong with writing a book, to help people find their passion, of course, but to justify its existence on the premise that something in society is broken and "wrong." And this book will fix it, is just SO played out. If anything, moving forward means accepting where you're at instead of hating on it.

  • Thanks Marisa. My book is all about why our generation is moving forward and making amazing things happen. It presents the positive outlook you're looking for, not the negative doom and gloom piece-- that's why I wrote 'The Quarter-Life Breakthrough' instead of The Quarter-Life Crisis. I hope you get to check it out!

  • I think a lot of millennials DO take the time to pause, meditate and then pursue work that is aligned with their passion points in life. However, I think now more frequently the frustration with so many options and barriers to entry are leading millennials to opt for entrepreneurship as a means to create tangible work that is meaningful for them. You might enjoy our piece "To My Fellow Millennials: Let’s Redefine Our Generation and Entrepreneurship"

    http://www.prsuit.com/life-in-review/to-my-fellow-millennials-lets-redefine-our-generation-and-entrepreneurship/

  • Mary Sanford Russo

    Kickstarter, when applied to business start-up,s reminds me of the OLD Junior Achievement model where friends, relatives and interested others were asked to buy into/donate to the production of something from the hands of the teen-aged entrepreneur. So when Betsy and Emily Nuñez got up and running, the old model was put right into practice, e-financing style. I glad someone is out there helping veterans from the post 9/11 conflicts who want work- simply, there are not enough jobs to keep them paid, otherwise.

  • Personally, the very concept of "finding meaningful work" seems to be shifting. I know way more "makers" than I do those looking to find meaningful work. In other words, we do what we're passionate about and finance that passion with "regular work" until we can have a jumping off point. I'm 37 and on my 3rd successful start-up. There's joy in the maker class!

  • I enjoyed this article and enjoy a lot of other discussions people have been having about the different values and different economies created by millennials. But I'd like people to look a little deeper at how we've come to this. You talk about how millennials are unlikely to work a job for more than 3 years, and how millennials aren't "waiting for retirement" or planning on retiring with a pension. But the economy has changed in ways not driven by millennials that have made it unlikely that anyone works for one company for 40 years and retires with a pension. Hardly any jobs offer pensions and almost every month you hear about some company cutting pensions or trying to affect whatever retirement plans are in place. The changing economy has made unstable career histories the new norm. Millennials are just making the best of it, but articles like these sort of imply that it is our choice. It's not.

  • Great point, Jenn. The state of the economy in many ways has forced the issue even further... jobs that provided long-term stability no longer exist and the non-employment rate for 25-34 year-olds is 25%.

  • Really great article . I'm a part of this generation and have discussed this very topic with many friends. We want to find meaning and purpose in our work - not just go through the motions and climb the ladder. Making money is still important but striking that balance is key.

  • Yes Alyssa! It's all about balance, balancing meaning and money. A lot of people dismiss our generation as entitled, and I think that's a misconception. We refuse to settle because we want our work to make an impact, not just provide a paycheck.

  • You are absolutely spot-on. However, I am 50 years old and am doing just that - and have been all my life. So, it isnt a new way of thinking - its just gaining in popularity. Thank god!

  • Great point Robert! People have been pursuing purpose-driven work for years-- what makes my generation is unique is that finally this is becoming the norm, not the exception. The majority of millennials want meaning over money, and that has enormous potential for creating a more sustainable, innovative, and compassionate world.