Millennials need to ditch their parents’ outdated career ladders and embrace job-hopping

Time for a change, perhaps.
Time for a change, perhaps.
Image: Reuters/Paul Hackett
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Five years ago, I seemed to have it all. I was 28 years old and making $70,000 a year working for the federal government. I had a fancy job title, a nice apartment, health care, generous retirement benefits, and job security in the midst of the recession. You literally can’t get fired from working for the federal government. Trust me, there are people who should.

But the pressure to “pay my dues” and climb a lucrative career ladder that didn’t really reflect my values was brutal. After I got shingles—a painful nerve disease often tied to stress and common among people over the age of 70, not twenty-somethings—I knew I had to make a change.

When I finally did leave my job, I began writing and speaking about how young professionals should pursue meaningful work. After interviewing hundreds of twenty-somethings, I learned that despite struggling with debt, recession, and the jobs crisis, millennials are not motivated by money. Rather, they are driven to make the world more compassionate, innovative, and sustainable. This isn’t a stereotype; it’s simply the truth.

Deloitte’s 2015 milllennial survey found that 75% of millennials believe businesses are too focused on their own agendas, rather than improving society. Only 28% believe their current organization is making full use of their skills. A full 50% would take a pay cut to find work that matches their values, and 90% of respondents said they wanted to use their skills for good. A recent Gallup report also revealed that 21% of millennials have switched jobs within the past year (three times the number of non-millennials), and only 29% of millennials feel engaged in their current jobs, making them the least engaged generation in the workplace.

Clearly, organizations are not responding fast enough to this generation’s desire to align their work with purpose. Millennials don’t want to move “up” on a career ladder. Overall, we are less concerned with traditional metrics of success, like savings and home ownership, and more concerned with creating lives defined by meaning, community, and shared value.

So why are so many parents, colleges, and corporate HR programs still preparing millennials for a future they don’t want?

When my friends and I graduated college just ten years ago, Facebook was barely getting off the ground—today, social media impacts pretty much every facet of our lives. The US Department of Labor has noted that 65% of today’s grade school kids will end up in jobs that haven’t been invented yet. More than one-third of Americans are freelancers (some 53 million Americans), and by 2020, that number could be as high as 60 million. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics between 2006 and 2016, the average job tenure for all employees twenty-five and over was only five years.

What all this suggests is that the US needs a new way of thinking about careers. We need to embrace instability and experimentation, and help the workforce of the future achieve what it actually wants: a way to make meaning, not just money. Unlike the career ladder mindset, which forces you to move in only one direction (up), let’s implement the lily-pad mindset, in which workers visualizes their career as a series of interconnecting leaps between different opportunities. What holds everything together are the roots of the lily pads—your purpose. Your roots may be driving you to do one thing now, but that thing may change in five years.

Now, this doesn’t mean you should quit your job every six months. This kind of hopping around will likely lead to personal frustration (and perpetual underemployment). Nor should everyone aim to be a career generalist, as scientific research has shown that skill mastery is a key motivation for fulfillment. But it does mean that you should be consistently questioning whether your current lily pad excites you, or is helping you make a valuable contribution to society.

Let’s start treating our careers as a lifelong experiment instead of a preordained slog. Find experiences that allow you to quickly test assumptions about your career interests. Every job, every experience, every place you travel, is a chance to learn something new about yourself, what interests you (and just as importantly what doesn’t), what you’re good at, what types of people you want to surround yourself with, and what type of impact you want to have on the world.

But companies need to adapt as well. They should be encouraging all of their employees to treat the office like a classroom and see where each employee fits best given their interests, skills, and purpose. If someone isn’t the right fit for an organization, that organization should help them find their next lily pad.

Several years after quitting my own job, I’m making just as much as money as I did while working for the government. More importantly, my shingles are gone and I’m excited to wake up in the morning. I’m doing work that energizes me instead of drains me. Don’t get me wrong: I still am nervous about what my future as a writer may hold. But I’m also happy to be building a life that reflects my own metrics of success, not one passed down to me by previous generations.

Follow Adam on Twitter at @whatsupsmiley. Adapted from The Quarter-Life Breakthrough: Invent Your Own Path, Find Meaningful Work, and Build a Life That Matters, available October 4, 2016 from TarcherPerigee/Penguin Random House. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.