A Letter To Corporate America
As a twentysomething in the working world, I often hear from older adults how impressed they are by my creativity, energy or optimism. They say it in that wistful tone that clearly shows they see themselves as no longer capable of possessing such attributes; sometimes they just come right out and admit to having long ago given up on these traits. I can’t help but cringe.
What does adulthood have in store for me? And what does the rest of it have in store for them? Many of these people are only in their 40s, years of adulthood remaining before them, and already they’ve given up!?
It’s gotten me thinking about the current state of adulthood.
My generation has high expectations for work. We want it to be meaningful, we want it to challenge us and enlist our full talents – and we don’t want it to become our life. We want work that is inspired by the real world, work that is playful, inventive and flexible. We have high expectations, and we have a lot to offer in return.
Making work appealing to my generation is smart not only because we are the future workforce. It’s also smart because the values, ideas and work styles that we bring into the marketplace are \ new. We bring fresh perspectives on everything from reaching new markets to increasing shareholder confidence. Creating a workplace that works for twentysomethings is going to shake things up, and what shows up as the dust settles will carry your company into the future.
Simply put, dear CEO, you need me and my friends. So, what will lure twentysomethings to your company? I’d argue what needs to change are the lives of Corporate Americans. Adulthood is in need of a serious makeover, one that will forever alter our relationship to work.
From the time we are small, we are asked: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” A doctor, a teacher or perhaps an astronaut – our answer is always what we want our job to be. Even at this young age we understand the connection: adulthood = work.
Once we get there, though, the perspective changes.
Encyclopedia Britannica defines adulthood as the “period in the human life span in which full physical and intellectual maturity has been attained.” If full maturity has been reached, what is left to explore? And while the encyclopedia’s definition may be excessively dry, our cultural definitions don’t stray far from this concept.
Kind CEO, the problem reflects what is happening at your company. Adulthood is seen as the time to abandon our eccentric ideas or youthful dreams to focus on what is “really important” – work, success and security. It’s no wonder no one wants to hit 30.
Colleen Kinder’s book Delaying the Real World appeals to this very sensibility (Running Press Book Publishers, 2005). The book is designed to inspire twentysomethings to go out and have big adventures: teach English in a foreign country, work at a national park, hike across Europe. But as her website reminds us, the clock is ticking: “You’ve got this pearl of a decade in front of you: THE TWENTIES. This is the prime of your life! Don’t be in such a rush to become boring!”
Adulthood as boredom. Ugh. What if this wasn’t what had to be?
At the University of Minnesota, I was actively involved in a student-directed public interest nonprofit. There, I led my fellow students in doing things like producing a play that raised over $45,000 for local women’s shelters and convincing the school to stop purchasing sweatshopmanufactured apparel. I was confident and competent at 21.
With experiences like these as our foundation, my generation is looking for work that is creative, effective and less hierar-chical. After graduating, I began working as an administrator at a local social service agency, largely because the executive director assured me that she’d help me develop the skills I needed to eventually run a nonprofit myself. Within a few months, it became clear that her mentoring would consist of little more than the occasional handoff of an interesting magazine article. While I was encouraged to take on more responsibility in my position, there was no development.
My experience is not unique; many of my peers are seeking out jobs where they can be challenged to grow. What they are receiving instead is the challenge of having more to do – a growing workload made up of mundane tasks.
As a CEO, I urge you to understand this: Twentysomethings are not afraid to work – we’re not slackers. In fact, my generation has worked more, starting at a younger age, than many in our parents’ generation. But we are not interested in giving our heart and soul to an organization unless there is something in it for our heart and soul.
Our generation often uses the phrase: Work to live, don’t live to work. Work is simply one aspect of a full life. In many cases, my generation watched our parents attempt to dedicate themselves to their work 100 percent while also being all about family – and overall it didn’t work out. Not only that, but after all that sacrifice many lost their jobs due to recessions and downsizing. As a result, we’ve decided to do things differently.
So what does Corporate America – or small businesses or nonprofits for that matter – need to do to create a workplace that is appealing to twentysomethings? First, take a good long look at adulthood.
Changing Corporate America isn’t going to happen by bringing in a new HR training program. Companies change when their leaders change. Want to really make the corporate world work for twentysomethings? Think about letting loose, about letting employees reclaim their playfulness, creativity and zest.
My generation wants our adventures in life to be in sync with our adventures at work. To create a work environment that embraces this perspective, the people at the top are going to have to start living it. We are asking them not just to grant us flexibility – but to learn it themselves. Don’t endure change, welcome it.
Making Corporate America inviting to twentysomethings isn’t about offering more perks or creating a more ‘hip’ look for the company’s ad campaign – it’s about changing the culture of adulthood. Companies and organizations that welcome this challenge will see employees (of all ages) who bring more of themselves to work. The result: more ideas, energy and creativity.
Consider this an invitation, from my generation to yours, to be real, relaxed and fully human.
Minneapolis-based Kirsten Johnson is a career coach whose goal is to help people in their 20s think big, live big and dream big. Her website is www.letsdreambig.blogspot.com .