Bridging the Generation Gap: Redefining What Success Looks Like in Your 20s

Over the past several years it seems like an infinite number of articles have emerged to help employers “understand” my generation — millennials. In these articles, we’re often portrayed as flawed: slackers, entitled, aimless, and high maintenance. A quick Google search of “millennials in the workplace” yields more than eight million hits, many of them “how tos” about getting members of this generation to perform adequately on the job. These negative portrayals are over-simplified. Although I’m not claiming that we’re perfect, our approach to work is not different because we are flawed. It’s different because we were raised in a vastly distinct social, political, economic, and technological society than our parents were.

At 29, I am already on my third “big girl job.” Based on that track record, it might be easy for some people to assume that I’m unreliable and aimless. But there is a lot more to my career than what appears on paper. My first adult job was a retail management position that helped me pay for college. I started at just 18 and worked more than 40 hours each week while carrying a full college course load and maintaining a 3.85 GPA, hardly what anyone would call lazy or entitled. After I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I stayed in that job for another year before entering graduate school. When I finished my master’s degree in sociology, I started working in a management position at a biomedical research center. It was a great job, and I learned a lot in my nearly three years in that position. One of the main lessons being that it was not the sort of work I wanted to dedicate my life to.

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I’ve had mentors, former professors, and family members tell me that it doesn’t matter how much you love your job, it’s more important to have good, steady work. They point out how it might look on my resume to make another shift just to feel more satisfied with my job. While sustaining myself financially is high on my priority list, the thought of working solely for a paycheck sounds like a waste of all the time, energy, and money I invested leading up to my entry into the workforce. Almost every young professional I know is carrying several thousand dollars in student loan debt and dedicated years of their life to pursuing higher education and specialized training. I’m not sure if it’s just part of getting older, or if I’m simply exhausted from trying to explain myself and the decisions I’ve made to the friends and family who tell me another move is a mistake, but I am done making my career decisions based on the fear of validating all of the negative perceptions of my generation.

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As older generations offer their critiques of millennials’ approach to work, I think it’s important for us all to remember that our unique experiences help us to define “success” in relation to our work in a different way than our parents might. Among other things, our parents were raised by a generation that lived through the Great Depression and multiple global wars, which undoubtedly had a huge influence on how they came to understand money, work, and the importance of stability. These experiences likely helped them develop a deep sense of loyalty and duty, even in the midst of hard times, that my generation may struggle to understand.

Another point to consider is the rising costs of higher education. My generation invested significantly more in our higher education than our parents did. The weight of this investment and the 20-some odd years it might take to repay those student loans has created a drive for higher salaries and jobs worthy of that investment. None of us paid tens of thousands of dollars to spend years working in a dead-end job that we hate, struggling to pay our bills.

Perhaps most influential of all, the boom in technology during my lifetime has completely changed the workforce. I carry an incredibly powerful computer in my pocket most of the day. Our ability to work differently, more efficiently, and with endless resources at our fingertips has shifted how we work and the impact work has on our personal lives. We’ve also seen well- paying jobs eliminated and automated as technology advances. Having grown up amidst this swiftly changing technological landscape, millennials know that the only way to stay relevant is to keep growing and sometimes that means we have to move on from a job or company.

It’s not that millennials are afraid of hard work or unwilling to bide our time in jobs that don’t completely light us up, we are simply approaching our work in a way that reflects the experiences we’ve had and the values we’ve learned as a result of those experiences. The best way employers can “understand” my generation is to understand why we approach work in a particular way. More efficient workplaces and happier, more productive, workers will not come from generations tolerating each other and working around their differences. Building bridges is perhaps the best thing we can do for ourselves and for the workplace. Different is not always bad, and as much as I hope employers will work to better understand my generation, I also hope that millennials (myself included) will take more time to understand and appreciate where our employers are coming from.

There are different paths to success. Some might settle for the first decent paying job that comes along and dedicate their lives to it. But our lives do not have to be measured by somebody else’s definition of success, and we don’t have to settle into the path that older generations expect us to follow. There isn’t only one way to a healthy, sustainable, and happy life, so don’t let stereotypes about millennials in the workplace convince you to let go of what you set out to do and have worked so hard for.

Originally published on May 23, 2017.

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