There are a great many people in their twenties who are feeling very lost right now.
It’s no accident this feeling coincides with a major shift in the way we approach our work. More young people than ever before are trading job security and wealth for risk and uncertainty. We are seeing a rejection of capitalism’s answer to work-life balance (is there such a thing?) and the subsequent embrace of the idea that work can provide us meaning, not just income with a few added benefits.
Why is this happening? Some point to drastic changes in the job market, as more of us inhabit roles that are threatened with obsolescence by the inevitability of AI.
Others see it as a problem of expectation. Our parents lived in a world that gave you a comfortable job in return for getting a degree; one in which the dominant mode of thought was one of appreciation for what one had, whether you’re a janitor or a pilot. Today’s culture, we keep hearing, is one of expectation. Whether or not we go to college, we often feel entitled to a certain lifestyle.
But in fact the root of our collective disorientation is not necessarily the nature of our work or its various threats. The root lies, rather, in an education system that has forgotten its reason for existence, producing in its wake a generation of lost souls.
They get blamed for a lot. And rightly so if the stereotype is true. They are the ‘entitled generation,’ the ones who can’t make up their mind about anything but will nevertheless make unreasonable demands on the world to conform to their point of view. Millennials are highly ambitious, apparently, but are unwilling to work for their ambitions.
Like most generalizations, these labels have proven woefully inaccurate. I work with millennial students, actors, businessmen and women from both ends of the financial spectrum. I don’t remember the last time I met someone who conformed to any of the above stereotypes.
Instead I find myself in perpetual admiration of this generation’s resilience, courage and stamina in the face of adversity. Whether it’s the struggling actor or the overworked consultant, I see a relentless striving towards a goal, day in and day out, fueled very often by an inspiring mission.
And yet there has never been more confusion about the meaning of our work than there is today. Today we might find ourselves questioning the importance of a task or project that not long before had given us a sense of purpose.
The Meaning of Work
The way humans have approached the notion of work has changed significantly in the past two hundred years. Before around 1800, we went to work in order to make a living. Work was a rather dull but necessary part of life. It is only in the past two centuries that we have developed the idea that we should not only be financially compensated for our work, but we should also be fulfilled by it.
Loving what we do professionally is a deceptively modern concept, but it remains a goal towards which we devote surprisingly little thought. This is no fault of our own. We are not trained — nor do we have the tools — to understand what we might like to do with our lives.
The problem lies in a deep-seated confusion about the purpose of education. Our current system is so deeply at odds with what is truly valuable to the vast majority of us, namely, the creation of meaning in our lives through our relationships and our work.
The Value of Education
Each year, around two million fresh-faced graduates in the US step out into the world having spent at least 75% of their lives learning skills like algebra, the names of past Presidents, or the chemical by-product of exothermic reactions.
Education (and college education in particular) has prioritized the ability to recite the periodic table or deliver a close reading of Gulliver’s Travels over the more consequential and, ultimately, more important questions. Questions like, how to find a job that you love; how to deal with the reality of death; what comprises a healthy, balanced lifestyle; and so on.
In this light we might begin to see why more recent graduates are quitting their comfortable, high-paying jobs in a feat of discontent and confusion over what they really want. In the process of acquiring core theoretical or practical skills, we have forgotten the true calling of an education: to teach us how to live.
Rethinking from First Principles
How strange it is that our careers are so often the product of a few hasty decisions made at 18, solidified in the form of a summer internship in college, and followed by a financially seductive job offer. Too often the decision is one of convenience rather than any careful analysis of what really fulfills us, of what makes us, to paraphrase Howard Thurman, feel ‘most alive.’
Restructuring our current model of education doesn’t have to take millions of dollars. We can begin to make a meaningful change in the right direction by simply altering the types of questions we are asking.
For example, take the subject of English literature. In schools today, literature is rightly studied as a model of social and historical analysis. But we might glean more from works of fiction if we frame the questions towards more explicitly didactic ends. As the writer and philosopher Alain de Botton suggests:
Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary would be assigned in a course on ‘How to manage the tensions of marriage’ instead of belonging in a course on ‘Trends in nineteenth-century fiction’, just as the works of Epicurus and Seneca would appear in a course on ‘How to Die’ rather than in one on ‘Hellenistic philosophy’.
In the ideal school of the future, de Botton writes, we might have a Department of Relationships, a Centre for Self-Knowledge, or an Institute of Dying. We would not do away with literature or history, rather we would utilise them for questions like, How do I live a life of meaning? What does it mean to be creatively or emotionally lost?
Towards a Better Path
I’m proud to be a part of this generation for the very reason its critics denigrate it: we’re entitled. Entitlement becomes a healthy vehicle for change when we envision a right currently denied to us that we nevertheless strongly believe we deserve.
We see such healthy entitlement in the students marching on the capitol for gun reform, in the #MeToo movement towards female empowerment, and in the universal push for equality in the workplace.
These debates, like most widespread socio-political movements in the US, find their roots in education: in an understanding of mental health, of what it’s like to practice empathy, to consider what it might be like for a woman working in an office of alpha-males. Underlying female empowerment in the workplace, the mental health debate surrounding gun control, and the suppression of sexual harassment is a basic understanding of what motivates each of us and what gives our lives meaning.
The true calling of education is not to produce mathematical geniuses. The true calling of education is to produce a population that is emotionally intelligent and skillful enough to understand what fulfills us so that we can make a contribution to society in a way that leaves a positive mark on those around us.
We must prepare those who will be in a position of power tomorrow so that we might avoid a repeat of the recklessness of those in power today. This begins with an education in emotional intelligence above all.