Why I Don’t Want a Meaningful Job


“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.”Adam Smiley Poswolsky, Fast Company, “4 Tips to Help Millennials Find Meaningful Work”

Today, the message came from Fast Company, but tomorrow it could be Forbes. Or The New York Times. Or Fox Business.

Once a week, some business reporter tries to combat the stereotype of the lazy Millennial with an article argues that, no, we Generation Y’ers merely ask that our work be meaningful. Today’s young people, they sniff, are far from the lazy prima donnas we’re made out to be. It’s just that such matters as money and job tenure are beneath us. Keep your pensions and dental plans; what we care about is making a difference.

Don’t buy it. Millennials don’t seek meaningful work because we’re selfless, or idealistic. If we value meaningfulness more than most, it is only because meaning is the sole reward we’ve come to count on in exchange for our labor.

Leaving aside the question of just how prevalent the lazy Millennial meme actually is (I notice more articles purporting to debunk the myth than spreading it), these think pieces miss the larger point. More than anything, they’re bits of convenient ephemera, based on seriously flawed research, providing convenient ideological cover for the reality of vanishing opportunities in the age of a declining middle class.

Take, for example, a statistic that appears in both the Forbes and Fast Company articles, which says that the typical Millennial job lasts fewer than 4 years. Technically, that’s true, and the meaningfulness crowd cites it as evidence that we are “job hoppers” unconcerned with building long-term careers. But they ignore the fact that one-quarter to one-third of all college-educated Millennials cannot possibly have been in the workforce for more than 4 years—they’re simply too young—or that these statistics have been gathered against the backdrop of the greatest employment disruption since the Great Depression.

The meaningfulness literature is full of such flaws and vagaries, and Brandon Towl has penned a thorough critique of the statistics behind the meme. He points out that these studies’ methodologies can be quite hard to come by, and are often interpreted by people with solutions for sale.

Indeed, when we strip away the marketing-speak, we see that Generation Y is not so different from our parents. According to one survey, Millennials, Boomers and Gen Xers value job security to roughly the same degree. That same survey finds Millennials more likely than any other generation to rank salary as “very important.” And the assertion that we are eager to move on runs up against a Pew finding that only 25% of Millennials believe they could “easily” find a job if they lost their current one.

Make no mistake, if your average Millennial could go to work in the office at the cracker factory, own a house, raise three kids and buy a boat, they would. We would work, save, and find our meaning in charitable pursuits or with our family. But when the financial landscape into which we emerge after graduation consists of an average $45k debt, 30% full-time employment, and 48% underemployment, what’s left to pursue, except meaning?

Was there ever a more idealistic generation than the Baby Boomers? Yet we don’t read about Boomers retiring from their lucrative, secure, often pensioned positions to seek out “meaningful” work. Quite the opposite. Boomers are leaving non-profits in droves even while delaying retirement in other sectors.

The weak economy is a factor behind Boomer behavior. But we should also keep in mind that those private sector Boomers have enjoyed both meaning and stability—the chance to support a family while protesting a war, or saving for retirement as well as sponsoring Soviet refugees. They did not have to choose between a meaningful life and a secure one. Neither should Generation Y, nor should the families whom we must increasingly delay having.

This “meaningful work” meme finds a corollary in the “love what you do” platitude, so perfectly deflated by Miya Tokumitsu in her recent Slate article. “According to this way of thinking,” she writes, “labor is not something one does for compensation but is an act of love…Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.”

As a canard, the meaningfulness meme is more of a justification to normalize lopsided compensation in a gutted middle class. According to a comparative analysis of W-2 wage and population statistics by University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos, some 70% of jobs in America pay less than a middle class wage (defined at a Spartan $30k). The kinds of jobs that enable thriving families, communities and democracy are disappearing. When meaningfulness becomes an acceptable substitute for income, the workforce enters a race to bottom. If we embrace that as an ethic, we should expect these trends to continue, and our situation to worsen.

If family-supporting salaries and sustainable careers are really a thing of the past, then our society needs to discover why—and soon.  Instead of whitewashing Millennial insecurity as some historically unprecedented spirit of altruism, we need to find its actual causes, and cure them. Cheerful advice for how to live better among the ruins only hampers that crucial work.

We’re looking for a solution. And while we do, we try to make a difference. Thanks for spreading the word.

But let’s not pretend we’ve had a choice.