Millennials, Boomers and the search for meaning

Decades back, when many of us Boomers went off to college, the purpose for that four year experience seemed twofold. … Continued

Decades back, when many of us Boomers went off to college, the purpose for that four year experience seemed twofold. On the one hand, get ‘credentialed’ by securing an academic degree from a good university. This was paramount. The other aim, while not always celebrated or articulated by parents, was also quite clear: this was to be a period of discovery, a time to explore who you are, get the craziness and wanderlust out of your system. Following graduation, things would starkly change, you were to be automatically responsible and mature, evidenced by landing a solid paying job with a long term career trajectory, probably getting married and having kids– in essence, on with ‘life’. The occasional rogue, like yours truly, went to Ethiopia or Paris, to explore the world beyond. But for the most part, the way for young people as well as the metrics for success, was very structured, predictable and widely understood. But, my, how the journey has changed.

70 percent of 30 year olds in the 1960s had accomplished certain specific benchmarks, financial independence, married, and likely with children, among others. Looking at 2000, the picture is quite different, with less than 40 percent of 30 year olds similarly positioned. Some scholars see this as a reaction to tightly structured and controlled childhoods where choice and decision- making on the part of children were at a minimum. Once ‘launched’ in their 20’s, they often appear bewildered, much to the consternation of parents. Often ill equipped to face a global world fraught with perceived danger, intense competition and uncertainty at every turn, they can appear ‘lost’, at least in the view of some parents. This extended discovery phase of life’s journey, named now, the odyssey years, is an extended period of launch.

So the question becomes, is this a troubling trend, or is it merely different, perhaps even better, than the “Boomer” approach?

Put differently, what does it mean to be moving toward that illusive goal of success, particularly in these times? I have been curious as to what motivates and challenges those in their 20’s. Having three boys in this age group, I have a unique window into this wonderful yet quite confusing period of life. Happily, the elder two, who went to school in Manhattan, continue to pursue their passion for music. Their rock creative duo, BlueBrain, is at the nexus of music and technology and has met with real critical acclaim. Our one consistent prayer for our three was that they would find a passion, something that excites and motivates them. This seems to be happening, not just with our musicians but with our youngest as well, who loves all things sports, and played NCAA D-1 golf. He is working on a sports app, has a college sports blog, coaches JV and varsity basketball, and is teaching part time. And while I celebrate the achievements of all three, their journeys and metrics for success are quite different from anything I knew following college graduation.

I buy the notion that life is, at its essence, a journey, not a destination. Whether you read Hesse’s Siddhartha, Homer’s Odyssey or Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, you notice that we human beings are always in search of something, of a place, an idea, an experience, a relationship– something that will complete us and help us understand who we are and for what we were created. Part of what keeps us alive and growing is this desire to go deeper, to be better, to find things which make us come alive. My observation is that when we stop questing, we die. So, I return to the thought: should we be concerned about this “odyssey” phase for our young people?

New York Times columnist, David Brooks, sees it this way:

“Yet with a little imagination it’s possible even for baby boomers to understand what it’s like to be in the middle of the odyssey years. It’s possible to see that this period of improvisation is a sensible response to modern conditions…you can now see the spirit of fluidity that now characterizes this stage…Old success recipes don’t apply, new norms have not been established and everything seems to give way to a less permanent version of itself.

Perhaps our ‘problem’ with understanding our young people and their version of the life journey lies within us.

Often when I speak to college students or an MBA class, I ask a simple question: ‘has the light gone out for your fathers?’ In other words, are your parents going through the motions, lacking passion, meaningful relationships and purpose? A stunning number of the students nod their heads in agreement. My next question is to ask, ‘what will be different about your journey so that you don’t end up in the same cul de sac?’

Is it possible that what is happening with young people today is a reaction to what they have observed of our generation? After all, modeling–for good or ill– is how we learn. From their perspective, the accumulation of things, the failure of marriage and the illusive, often empty, quest for ‘success’, seems in question for their generation. So some conclude that they should chart a quite different course, where means are more important than ends.

When I left the State Department in 1987, I interviewed in New York for a position in finance. I recall one specific interaction at Morgan Stanley in midtown Manhattan. At the end of my interview with a highly educated and accomplished investment banker, he surprised me with his candor. ‘I have made a lot of money, yet in the process, lost my family. I am in prison. It is a very nice prison, but I am trapped nonetheless.’

For whatever complex combination of reasons, many young adults seem to be yearning for more and for less. More time for friends, experiences, life-enriching activities and some freedom from feeling trapped. And yet less desire for material things for the sake of accumulation and keeping score. So if the desire for the Hermes tie or Rolex watch goes away, a simpler life style is far easier to support. Defining success for this crowd is a bit more complex than in the “Boomer” era. This seems virtuous on its face, yet again, it is complex.

When faced with such a confusing set of facts, I typically pause, reflect and ponder how the unique man, Jesus, would understand all of this. What immediately strikes me is that he called individuals to follow Him. He never called them to a task or project, a career or even a religion. He simply invited others to join Him on a journey. At one place in the New Testament the writer says simply that Jesus chose twelve, ‘to be with him.’ This notion of ‘withness’ is so utterly foreign to a culture that has commodified everything, including relationships, calling it “networking”. Relationships and the journey were the end, not the means, for Jesus. His view of the journey was less about achieving some grand goal or destination and more about qualitative measures of character and life.

So back to the “odyssey” generation, and our assessment of them. Perhaps they are on to something by challenging us “boomers” to consider what matters most in life, the end or the means. It was Gandhi who observed that “the ends are the means in the making.” Yes, the actual journey in its day to dayness truly matters.

The famous Chicago social critic, Studs Terkle, did some research the attitudes of 90 year olds, asking them the question: if you could live life over what would you do differently The top few responses by a large margin: spend more time with family and friends, and work to leave a legacy that matters. Curious that what’s most important in life is difficult to measure. Some of these older friends seem on a page quite similar to the “odyssey” generation. Curious.

Note to self: enjoy the journey.

J. Douglas Holladay is founder of PathNorth, which serves as a resource for business leaders to bring meaning and fresh perspective to both work and life.

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  • WmarkW

    Baby boomer kids had Depression-era parents, who emphasized getting a job and making yourself indispensible at it. Millenial kids are the first ones who, as of the time they entered college, expect to live to be 90, and don’t want a future of regrets about paths not taken.

    Now, if we could do something about the fact that they need jobs, and the Boomers haven’t retired yet.