What Gen-Y (Really) Wants

Nathan Bashaw
Thursday, December 3, 2009

I’ve noticed something different about Gen Y. We’re really ambitious, and we need our work to be meaningful. Something about slaving away, just for the money, doesn’t feel right to us. We’ll absolutely crush it when we are doing things that matter, but you can count on us to start looking for other opportunities if things get too routine.

I see this trait in my friends as they’re deciding what to do after they graduate from college. Everyone talks about how important their work is going to be. No one talks about their pension plans. I wouldn’t hesitate to take a pay-cut to work a more meaningful job, and I think most of my friends would do the same. We just want to make enough money to live simply and comfortably. Everything after that is nice, but it’s less important than doing work we care about.

The distinctive quality of importance is that it’s so intangible and relative. We don’t know exactly where to look to find it. There’s no map that lays it all out for us.

When we buy into that narrative of chasing success, we’re telling ourselves that we have to go other places to do work that matters. Worse, it tells us that we as individuals lack significance.

Understandably, many of us set our sights on exotic locations like D.C., or Silicon Valley, or Chicago. It’s practically an American tradition by now: bright-eyed Midwesterner goes off to the big city to chase his or her dreams. If you go into it with the right attitude and understanding, then it can be really rewarding.

There is, however, a problem with the way some people think about it. When we buy into that narrative of chasing success, we’re telling ourselves that we have to go other places to do work that matters. Worse, it tells us that we as individuals lack significance. We can only become important if we go to the places where important things are happening. Once we get there, we’ll meet big people and they’ll show us the ropes, and one day, if we’re lucky, we’ll become big people too. We can’t create any importance from scratch. We have to go elsewhere to claim a share of some pre-existing importance.

I beg to differ. We can make our own importance. We don’t have to ask permission. We don’t have to wait.

That’s what the “talent retention” enthusiasts don’t get. We don’t want to be retained. We don’t want to be tricked into staying in Michigan or distracted by a cool downtown area just to work some job we’re not really into. They’re trying to make Michigan cities into cheap replicas of other “important” places. Sure, there has to be a certain level of support, but we want to build things. We want to be founders. We don’t want our hands held, and we don’t want you to make plans for us.

We just want to do meaningful work. We want to be remembered for doing big things and making the world better. That’s what we really want.

Nathan Bashaw (@nbashaw on Twitter) is a junior at MSU majoring in Political Theory & Constitutional Democracy. He is working on a start-up idea having to do with the future of books, and blogs about it at nathanbashaw.com. He is also a policy researcher for the Rick Snyder for Michigan Governor 2010 campaign, and works as an international business consultant for the Michigan Export Growth Program.

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  • Ryannekennerly

    I enjoyed reading your post. I do agree that eveyone should start from scratch and really get the feel of what the things they want to do mean and as time progresses they can meet people that introduce them to people and little do they know it they can be on top like others. Also, the comment you made on instead of looking for weath, you just want to enjoy whatever work force you participate in. There are many people in this world who absolutely hate getting up every morning because they dislike their job. But you, your a wise one.

  • nbashaw

    I wrote a follow-up post on my personal blog. It asks the question "What is Meaningful Work?" http://bit.ly/6FRdjG

  • MrsVsStudent

    To me, we have to find our fulfillment within ourselves. Personally, I have a lot of traditional pride. I believe in family. I believe in community. I believe in giving back. I believe in taking ownership and responsibility. If we all had the idea that the solution to Michigan's problems is not to make it our problem, and take off running, then what is to become of good ol' Michigan? Sure, it's difficult for us to try to white-knuckle bear the atrocities we're being faced with in the Michgan economy, job market, and industry, but is the alternative any better? Sure it is, if you want to be selfish. The truth is, as my father would say, anything worth having is worth working for. And Michigan is NOT worthless. Oh, it's down, but it's not out. What could be more fulfilling to a driven, motivated, independent spirited Gen-Yer than for us to take our talents, our unique qualities, and pull Michigan up by the boot straps? What could be better than us taking our innovations and our world-class educations from Wayne State and University of Michigan and using them to make ground-breaking strides into the future, right here in Michigan? We can be next to have a Cancer center named after us or a municipal center named after us. We could be forever notarized for our role in rebuilding this state. And to all the Gen-Yers I know, that's one of our driving forces. We are motivated by the odds we're facing. We're not cowards. Many of us, especially in urban Michigan areas like Detroit, often come from examples of what the real results of abandonment, disinterest, and deemed unworthiness are. We know what it's like to have people who are not really invested, who are running away only to be replaced by someone whose only interest is collecting a paycheck. We understand the detriment of abandonment and the damage it causes. That's not us. We're not the dead-beat dads or the corrupt and selfish municipality. We are not the lifeless and disinterested school board or the discouraged and disenchanged teachers. We are not the products of our environments, and we will not repeat their endeavors. We will not be selfish and self serving. We are not taking our first-class educations and running to Atlanta or Los Angeles or New York to make THEIR states greater. We know that we are the future, the truth, and the means by which this state can truly turn around. We should stay, we should invest. We should not run off when the going gets tough because we are smarter and stronger than that. We are too confident to be discouraged by hard times. We stay.

  • I am shocked by how much I feel your post misses the point.

    This isn't a character issue; it's an infrastructure issue. People I know aren't leaving because they're selfish and lazy, they're leaving because they ALREADY TRIED to start something new and couldn't find the resources to get it off the ground here. Or they tried to do things through existing organizations and were not taken seriously because of their youth and/or the org's unwillingness to change.

    I feel that your emotionalism is clouding your judgement. We shouldn't be swept up in romantic notions of transformation and having our names on buildings (?). Gen-Yrs should be motivated by the desire to make lasting, positive change. Logically, we should allow for the fact that some of us may find places outside Michigan where we can make a difference more quickly, more efficiently, or with greater impact because that place has an existing infrastructure to do so. I don't think people should be be perceived as lazy or selfish for pursuing such opportunities.

    Potentially, things are different on your side of the state. In Grand Rapids, we have not experienced the "abandonment and disinterest" you describe. I believe this is because of the long tradition of philanthropy and the Dutch Calvinist (for lack of a better term) work ethic so prevalent here. The downside of that is, for young, Gen-Y transplants from other states, it can be extremely difficult to break into the area's existing power circles. People are by-and-large quite traditional and conservative here. Change is slow.

    Also, let's not pretend working in New York is a walk in Central Park. It's an extremely competitive environment, and a difficult place to live--not exactly the path of least resistance. There's a reason they say "if you can make in New York, you can make it anywhere".

    The bottom line is, I feel like when the discussion gets overly impassioned like this, we get away from the real crux of the issue: How are we going to attract the resources to make all this unselfish world-changing stuff happen? Are we going to work those existing systems and infrastructure, or are we going to create our own? If the latter, what will that process look like?

  • nbashaw

    It didn't miss the point - it was making a different one. You're focused on the "how", but MrsVsStudent was talking about the "why". It's of course valuable and necessary to talk about "how will this actually happen" but it's not the *only* conversation. I think a lot of people in general lack a sense of purpose, so the "why are we doing this" part is crucially important.

    I actually think the main flaw isn't the post's "romanticism" but rather the idea that Michigan is the only entity worth loving. I don't think a lot of people leave because they are selfish, I think they do so because they value other things (like their country) and they don't see leaving as "abandonment". And, honestly, I think they're right.

    The thing that really resonated with me was the idea of ownership and responsibility. I think that's something that we're not very good at as a generation. We can get interested in problems and maybe want to fix them but they're not ever "our problems", and we're not easily burdened with duty.

  • jpbarrabee

    My experience is that I am 32 and I moved here from Arizona to be close to my daughter that moved here with my ex. I understand responsibility. I have in the last 6 years given up on the dream of a fulfilling job. Finding fulfilling work is an ideal we are brought up with and is hard to lose but I have lost it. I just want a job. I want a job that will pay enough to cover the child support, the rent, and the student loans. If I had this job and I was not perpetually afraid of losing it, I might be able to volunteer more.

    I don't think there is anything wrong with taking a lousy job if it pays and then getting one's fulfillment through volunteering. I just wish I could find a lousy job.

  • nbashaw

    I am shocked by how much I agree with what you just said. The idea of taking ownership and responsibility is exactly what we need. Thank you for writing this.

  • Nathan Bashaw leads the way! Social Networking itself feeds his argument. Stand your ground Gen Y! The arguments coming at any younger generation always demand a response - Gen Y MI is a great example.

  • Like your post and is pretty interesting. We just want to do meaningful work. We want to be remembered for doing big things and making the world better. That’s what we really want. Well stated, yet I just want a job for short-term goal to survive. Like many in this generation, we cant even find a job in this state. With the lack of diversification, bureaucratic red-tape, and no true plan to compete within the 21st century, This state is like a black-hole. Don't get me wrong it will turn around but, not for the forseeable future. I wish for the best for this state. Yet as a student, vet, and hard worker trying to compete with fifty yr old for minimum wage jobs it will not break my heart when I walk out the door.

  • I really love this piece. I think it really hits on the goals that everyone I know has AND in pointing out that accomplishing those goals are not always best done by following the traditional path, as pointed out in the fifth paragraph.

    The one issue I have with it is the sentence: "We don’t want to be retained. We don’t want to be tricked into staying in Michigan or distracted by a cool downtown area just to work some job we’re not really into."

    I understand the sentiment that Michigan is not going to be able to provide a "Chicago" or a "New York," nor do I think that it should try to. That's not where Michigan's comparative advantage lies at this point...

    However, if Michigan puts money into building the type of services and qualities for a city that people want, and people decide to stay because they like it, where's the trickery? Additionally, given what you said about gen Y wanting/needing to build their own importance and that they should pave their own paths, then what is the trickery about providing good quality cities in which gen Y can CREATE the type of job that they want to have?

    Retaining talent: giving the talent in Michigan a reason to stay to build the types of jobs they want to have. Provide the services that will make them see that Michigan is a worthwhile place to DO that. I don't see the "trickery."

  • nbashaw

    Thanks! I'm glad you agree. It's one of those things that's been nagging me and I felt I needed to put it into words.

    About the "trickery", I think you're basically right. I failed to articulate the idea I really wanted to communicate.

    Cool cities emerge from people doing things they care about - they aren't designed. They're not packaged, like a playground for 20-somethings. We'll build great things without someone else planning it for us. We *are* the city, it doesn't exist *for* us.

  • I read your original post with interest, Nathan, because I suppose I'm one of those 'talent retention enthusiasts' you mentioned. The company I work for helps cities (and companies) do just that. I agree with you when you say that making a smaller midwestern city into a 'mini-Chicago' or a 'mini-Manhattan' isn't going to accomplish anything. I don't agree, however, that you can't intentionally design a city. In fact, I believe you can. But the question is: "WHO is involved in the design?" The real key - as you allude to - is for cities to really and truly engage the young people living there in the discussions that will shape the city's future. It's not about replicating something that already exists. It's about pulling up a seat at the decision-making table, and allowing young citizens to help create the city from the inside out.

  • @Peter Moorhouse: I agree. However, I feel that when people start asking these questions, the conversation ends. My experience is that young folks are resistant to anything that involves the words "strategic plan", preferring things to happen "organically". They start AWESOME projects, but these aren't actual, sustainable opportunities for gainful employment. And (again, anecdotally, from personal experience...) the people currently holding the power to redesign organizational and city infrastructure haven't actively invited open conversation with Gen Y-ers on these issues.

  • @Ruth Terry: I couldn't agree more when you say, "the people currently holding the power to redesign organizational and city infrastructure haven't actively invited open conversation with Gen Y-ers on these issues."

    This is exactly what needs to happen in cities, and exactly what the company I work for tries to do. It's not about imposing a solution that worked elsewhere. Or even having a third party 'design' a custom solution that could work in a city. It IS about learning different ways of engaging and having conversations with ALL members of a community (Gen Y, Gen X and Boomers alike), realizing that everyone can play a part in creating the city THEY want.

    In workplaces and in life, Gen Y has been moving beyond 'top-down' structures, in favor or organic or grassroots organization. It's time for the same to happen at the community level.

  • nbashaw

    Ruth and Peter, you have changed my mind on the virtues of designing a city.

    I *don't* want to be a pawn in a masterplan, but I *do* recognize that to achieve my goal and start a great company I'll need to have a support structure. This is where the real design comes in. You have to plan and design a context that allows entrepreneurship to thrive. It takes knowledge and capital and community. I totally agree with you on this.

  • Check out the comments on http://www.therapidian.org/mit... to participate in a related conversation.

  • How quickly this devolves into a 'chicken or the egg' debate. How do we get the students to feel like Michigan is a worthwhile place to come to and start building in? Clearly what's here right now isn't appealing (or maybe just not marketed well?). I think there needs to be a dual approach in which cities ARE trying to develop the infrastructure that it turns out students are looking for so that students see that there is potential in the area to succeed in `creating their own importance and wealth -- create the pocket and the new generations fill it with wealth and finish the job by building the city in the image they hold for it.

  • Michael

    Jennifer: I like this discussion you are having. I believe that it all starts with jobs, if there are good jobs in the area young people will be attracted to the area. As a result of them being there AND having a decent income, where they spend their money influences the layout and development of the city. If they city is open to change or not, like the current Michigan, and it resists change people will eventually move. Either way, when there is economic prosperity it is the spark for people to look at being entrepreneurs and trying something new and create new businesses and markets. I think..

  • Ruth Terry

    Enjoyed reading your post, but I have a different perspective. I don't think most young people are going to larger cities because they are "chasing success", and looking for a glamorous career or lifestyle. I think there a lot of people who feel that they are unable to find meaningful employment in existing firms, and/or they lack the resources (external: funding, connections; internal: training, natural talent, stamina) to create meaningful opportunities that also pay the bills. We've been having a tangential discussion on The Rapidian, a Grand Rapids-focused citizen journalism site.

  • nbashaw

    Ruth, you're right that people *feel* that they are unable to *find* meaningful employment. In this essay, I want to argue that meaning doesn't just fall in your lap. It's not something you can just find elsewhere in the world. That kind of meaning never lasts because it depends on others.

    Real meaning is something you create with the passion you put into your work. It is something you find in yourself, not something you discover in the world. Everyone can and should do it. We don't lack anything.

    Also, I think "glamorous" is the wrong word, and it's certainly not what I mean to imply by "important". Meaningful, important work is about creating something that we care about. Whether it's starting a new venture or adding value to an existing firm, the focus is much more on our love of our craft than it is about being rich or famous.

    Regardless of where you come down on the issue, this is a discussion worth having. Could you post a link to the discussion you referenced on the Rapidian? I would love to participate in that conversation.

  • Michael

    Nathan: I live in Silicon Valley and there is a huge difference between Michigan and this area. I do agree with you that you can start something from scratch anywhere but if you live in an area that has an abundance of young, educated and professionally driven people you are much more likely to live out your dreams. Overall you have to agree that you cannot do everything yourself, you need a group of like minded people. I think people leave, as I did, for many reasons but opportunity is the key. The question is: what do you want to accomplish and where is your time going to be used the most effectively?

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