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When Will I Find My Purpose? For Each Generation, the Answer Is Different

November 01, 2017 | Filed in: Your Brain

Most of us hope to find a sense of purpose at work. But the expectation for when we will discover that purpose can differ across generations. For many young workers today, there’s a notion that something is wrong if your first job doesn’t feel like a calling. But is that really true? We polled MM-ers and friends in different age groups to see what they thought. 

In Their Twenties

“There were a lot of boxes I wanted my first job to check: Did it pay the bills? Would the work be exciting? Was it located in a nice area? Would I get to work on a small team, alongside people who were smart and motivated? Were there opportunities for growth?

During my senior year of college, I invested a lot of time looking for a role that would check every single one of those boxes, and even flew out to San Francisco to interview for the position I currently have. I wanted my first job to align with my goals, my parents’ goals, my friends’ goals, and society’s goals—it had to satisfy everything.”

—Jacob, 23, Engineer

“When I started my job hunt, I had extremely high standards. I wanted to pursue a career in journalism, and I thought my first job should be directly related to that. By the end of my search, though, I was humbled: I ended up taking a job that had nothing to do with journalism. But it’s actually been a pleasant surprise—I genuinely love what I’m doing now.”

—Beth, 24, Business Intelligence Associate

“Throughout my senior year of college, anytime I was asked ‘What are your plans after graduation?’ my body would physically tense up. I felt acute pressure to give an answer that demonstrated a sense of purpose. I didn’t see my eventual job as a means to pay the bills—if I couldn’t start my career in an industry I felt passionate about, laboring alongside people I admired, and working towards goals that would advance me professionally and personally, I was sure I was setting myself up for failure.”

—Cassie, 25, Brand Marketing Associate

In Their Thirties

“I graduated from college during the Great Recession, which had a big impact on how I viewed my future. I thought there was no way I would find a job. I decided to go to graduate school instead, which meant I could delay figuring out what I was really going to do for two more years. I moved to New York for my program and took classes in the evening, and to support myself, I ended up taking a full-time job as an assistant at a media company. I felt so lucky to be employed at all, that the fact that the role was in an industry I was interested in felt like a bonus. Entering the workforce during that time instilled a deep fear in me: Jobs were scarce, and I internalized the idea that there were 10 people lined up behind me who could replace me at any moment. The pressure to be indispensable has followed me to this day.”

—Sarah, 32, Content Director

“I wish my older self could tell my younger self not to take my first job so seriously. When I was in college, my brother’s girlfriend worked at Allure magazine. It was an exciting time for print media, and the industry seemed so glamorous. My heart became set on doing the same thing. Not only did I feel pressure to have my first job be in the industry I would work in for the rest of my life, but I also felt that if I failed, my career would be over. I put a lot of pressure on myself to have everything figured out from the very beginning.”

—Caroline, 34, Director of Visual Merchandising

“When I graduated from college in 2006, I remember a lot of people saying: ‘Your first job is supposed to suck. It’s a stepping stone to other things. Don’t take it too personally if you hate it.’ Most of my friends were miserable in their first jobs (as was I), but it was indeed temporary. We’ve all found our way—but it took most of us a few jobs to get our bearings and to figure out what we actually wanted to be doing.”

—Tory 34, Creative Director of Brand

In Their Fifties and Beyond

“Cliché as it sounds, I wanted my first job to allow me to make the world a better place. Many of my peers were going into nonprofits, education, and politics, and I felt pressure to have a career that would be seen as bettering society in some way. What I found hard was that I was told in college, ‘You can do anything!’ but when it came to actually entering the workforce, I didn’t have any specific vocation or path laid out for me. I needed to translate my liberal arts education into hard skills, but not for just any job—I wanted it to be something meaningful.”

—Kathy, 56, Fundraising Coordinator

“Coming out of school, my top priority was earning money and becoming financially independent. My dad was an executive, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I wanted to make sure I could always be counted on to put bread on the table. I got a job in my first year after college selling cash registers to grocery stores, which I quickly realized wasn’t going to cut it. That first role, though, was only ever about getting a paycheck while I mapped out my long-term plan.”

—Bruce, 60, Co-Founder of an E-Commerce Company

Photograph by Yan Ruan.

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Alexandra Johnson is the brand manager at MM.LaFleur, where she started out as a summer intern. Her happy place is the room housing Monet's Water Lilies at MoMA. Read more of Alexandra's posts.

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