Last Friday I packed up my office supplies, shut down the computer that had been my daily companion for the last nine months, gave my boss an awkward hug, and walked out to the Peachtree Corporate parking lot for the last time.
I left behind a salary, benefits, relatively positive working environment, and an Apple computer — why?
If you’re a member of Gen Y, I probably don’t have to tell you. Constant compromising, filtering your best ideas through a gambit of approval processes, feeling that your work may be meaningless or, further, that it might be changing the world for the worse. These frustrations aren’t unique to my former job, and if you reside in a cubicle for 40 hours a week, you’ve probably suffered at least one of them.
If you’re a member of an older generation, however, you might scoff at my ungrateful attitude, my shameless self-absorption, and my reckless disposal of a job for which plenty of people would sacrifice a limb. Like my former boss, who, when I once let on that I felt unsatisfied, simply quipped, “Work isn’t supposed to be fun,” you may dismiss my disenchantment as part of the pie-in-the-sky idealism that plagues my generation.
But wait. Throughout the education that my parents and grandparents worked so hard for me to get, I was taught to question and challenge assumptions. To focus on possibilities, rather than limitations. To ask why. So, I can’t help but ask, why shouldn’t work be fun?
A year ago I moved to Atlanta to find a job, any job. But now I’m looking for something better, something I haven’t even seen. Isn’t it possible to redeem work, to make it enjoyable and challenging and meaningful? If such an ideal didn’t exist, we wouldn’t know to want it, right?
My own intuition and the whole world cry out that there must be a better way.
Our parents taught us to get good grades. To do well on the S.A.T. To graduate from a top-tier college. If we followed this path, they told us, the rest would fall into place.
But then the financial collapse coincided with the emergence of the most educated applicant pool in history. Not only did we realize we’d have to settle for something less than “whatever we set our minds to,” we realized that even our Plans B, C, D and E were out of reach.
Yet despite a 14% unemployment rate (which, when you take into account millennials not technically looking for jobs, is actually more like 37%), 18 to 29-year-olds are still turning down jobs we believe are dead ends, often to the dismay of our parents. Fellow 2008 graduate Scott Nicholson told the New York Times last month, “I am absolutely certain that my job hunt will eventually pay off.” Rather than settle for any job, we feel we are cut out for something better.
Jeanne Hulbert, a sociology professor at LSU, also suggests my decision is part of a generational trend. “Millennials are not settling for the same choices made by other generations,” she told BusinessReport.com. “They have a completely different way of looking at the world.”
A friend of mine decided to bypass the traditional job search when we graduated from college. She calls herself “a perpetual intern” because for the past two years she’s held a series of unpaid internships in museums. She’s been heavily financed by the money her deceased father left behind, which has allowed her to travel from the Bay Area to rural Pennsylvania to Chicago, and now to Delaware for graduate school. Museum Studies is a highly competitive field, and she says she couldn’t have gotten into this graduate program without the internships.
My friend isn’t your typical trust fund baby. She worked retail through college for her spending money, and now she’s doing everything she can to make the career she wants happen. A lot of people would tell her to invest her money… but isn’t that what she is doing?
I realized a few months ago that I had a choice. I could stay in my cubicle in the suburbs and use my talents to serve corporate interests. I could ignore the frustrations, collect my paychecks and promise myself, “Maybe next year.”
Or, I could save every paycheck in preparation for the day I would no longer receive one. Meanwhile, I could quietly plan for something better. And as a result, I could actually perform better at my nine-to-six because I was no longer afraid of losing it.
Then, one day, I could pack up my desk and quit, satisfied that the past months were not in vain. Rather, they were providing me the money and experience to pursue something more satisfying. Freelancing? Perhaps. I admit that I’m not entirely sure what my ideal work will look like, or if it even exists in this life.
But if it does, I can’t bear not to discover it.
Photo Credit: Joe Martinez