What’s a Job to Millennials?

by | Sep 18, 2015 | Behind the Scenes

Editor’s Note: Nathan Benevides is a recent college graduate and a contributor to the MY JOB project. Here, he offers his (extremely subjective) perspective on what a job means to millennials as they scramble up the generational ladder to rule the world. He is chronically verbose, at times Dickensian, and he sincerely asks for your understanding. 

map of boston

Map of Massachusetts, Boston highlighted. Photo courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica

Boston, MA: When people ask me, “How’s the job search?” I am irate.

Let me explain. I’m a recent college graduate refraining from full-time employment because of a commitment to relocation and attending graduate school. It’s a decision that I half-made on my own and my job prospects helped me make more completely. All this to say that I get this question often and the given explanation consistently evokes doubtful little eyebrows screaming at the top of their lungs “YOU’RE NEVER GOING BACK.” Beneath them a forced smile curls around words: “That’s good, take some time to get your affairs in order.” I wonder if at 22 I should know what my affairs are, and also how do I order them?

By an overwhelming margin, the job search question comes by way of comfortably-careered forty-somethings who typically mean well. In this instance though, the inquisitor always comes off as socially sadistic. Maybe it’s because the entire exchange is marked by awkward mumbling and averted gazes, explaining away shortcomings and failures as the soulless inquisitor swaggers off, drunk with newfound superiority–the bearer of such sage advice as “Yeah, it’s all about who you know!” and “Don’t be discouraged!”, always said with such exuberance it forces you to wonder what has them so excited.

Nathan (left), sometimes carries this photo around to prove his worth.

Nathan (right), sometimes carries this photo to prove his worth. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

“I work, therefore I am.”

Worse still, is the sheer frequency of the question. Previous to graduating college, the shortlist of small talk was left to the innocuous: family, weather, sports, etc. Today, while the ink’s still tacky on my diploma, the question of employment is omnipresent as if Descartes had said “I work, therefore I am.” Do I not exist beyond my job title, or should I keep my pay stubs as proof of consciousness?

And this, I think, strikes at the defining point of the job search for my generation: my career will not define me. The body of my work, my accomplishments, my failures, the net effect my life has had on the world at large, all these can and will define me- but my workplace, my title, my rank, none of these can. Nor should they really.

Label Anxiety

While my parents and their baby-boomer friends were introduced by name, workplace, and corresponding title, mine is a generation that grimaces at labels. You can see it everywhere, in the ever-expanding list of genders, sexual orientations, and racial affiliations. The concern is that the idea of labelling is for the purpose of being exclusive. Every square was comfortable in its identity until rectangles came along.

Every single one of us ‘Millennials’ hates the name almost as much as every social commentator hates spelling it.

Mine, of course, is the Millennial Generation. So-called because we were so different than the ‘Generation X’ before us (which universally failed to become crimefighting mutants despite their namesake) that we deserved our own name. Apparently, ‘millennial’ was the name that clever society came up with for a population born in the 1990s but maturing in the 2000s. Every single one of us hates it almost as much as every social commentator hates spelling it.

The question is how this resistance to labels–which I think is fundamental (if oversimplified) to the culture of the generation–exactly affects the millennial job search and, by extension, the entire relationship between millennials and work. To do so, it’s important to start with a picture of the labor market itself. It’s a system over which we have little control or responsibility, particularly at 18-25 years old.

Never Too Comfortable

The buzzword in modern labor studies is ‘flexibility.’ A labor market flexibility is defined as ‘firms’ ability to make changes to their workforce in terms of the number of employees they hire and the number of hours worked by the employees.’ Increasingly, firms have begun to utilize flexible labor arrangements over standard employment contracts. I.e., instead of committing employees to contracts and benefits packages, employers are using an ever-expanding field of independent contractors to get things done. In many ways, this proves more efficient for employers. A recent article for the Huffington Post shows that in Germany, the most industrious nation in Europe, the number of flexible labor arrangements has risen over 70 percent in recent years.

The Millennial Generation doesn’t often commit to a single employer . . . Even if they do commit to a single employer, it’s not for long.

The cumulative effect of this is that the Millennial Generation doesn’t often commit to a single employer; many work two or more part-time jobs. Even if they do commit to a single employer, it’s not for long: 70% of millennials leave their first job within two years. But, if the trend towards labor flexibilization is to be believed, my generation may not have much of a choice. Who then can blame us for not letting a career define us? Much less a series of part-time jobs?

Making The Most Out of What We Are Given

Overall, the objective of job-searching for the Millennial Generation may be best described as ‘trying to finance things worth committing to.’ This might explain why the millennials are among the most generous population segments when measuring donations towards nonprofits and other campaigns and causes. In this way, I suppose LinkedIn has been a boon for my generation, as it’s made changing place of employment and job title so easy and so public that we needn’t introduce ourselves as anything. I am not Nathan Benevides, Plumber at DrainCo or Project Lead at Ideas-R-Us; I’m a human being with interests and passions that I am feverishly developing into a skillset that may or may not be marketable to employers but, hopefully, can prove valuable in the grand scheme of things.

This face screams 'employable' but also 'Why can't I job?' Courtesy of Facebook.

The face of the frustrated job search. Photo courtesy of Facebook.

It’s not about taking pride in your work, personifying your career, or even doing what you love. It’s doing something–really anything you can–to make it possible to focus on your passions.

For us, it’s not about taking pride in your work, personifying your career, or even doing what you love. It’s doing something, maybe a whole manner of things–really anything you can–to make it possible to focus on your passions. There’s a pervasive skepticism about finding the perfect job, or finding a job that is perfectly in line with your personal ideology and that marks a considerable shift from traditional thinking on work. Of course, this doesn’t make the job search any less stressful or frantic- we all need an income to survive. Still, there is something uniquely draining about the concept of working a job you don’t necessarily want in order to afford the pursuit of happiness.

All in all, for me, the job search has been a mixed bag. After a number of outright denials, some interviews, and few worthwhile offers, I decided that a one-year hiatus before going back to school was the best avenue for me.

In the meantime, I have done the blasé thing nowadays: working multiple part-time positions, some related to my field, others not so much. A number of my friends decided otherwise: a few have full-time, entry-level positions,  some went directly into graduate school, others seem to have abandoned their fields of study altogether, still others are doing exactly as I have described: balancing daytime drudgery with off-the-clock passion.

For all but the most exceptional of us though, the job search remains a distinct challenge, as much because of market conditions as it is because of our own selectivity, diverse aims, and inherent transience. Despite that, millennials have proven wonderfully adaptable, willing to accommodate trends in the labor market and work multiple jobs in the name of satisfying their passions, achieving at the personal level as much as on the societal level.


Feature Photo courtesy of USA Today. 

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Suzanne Skees, author of the three-volume MY JOB series on real people in remarkable jobs, believes in the power of our jobs over our identity and wellbeing and, conversely, our ability to change our world with the work of our minds and hands. She lives by the Pacific Ocean and spends as much time as possible listening to the surf, and to silence.



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