Like so many of us old-timers who remember watching John Glenn walk on the moon on our TV sets (I was 4, but remember it well), I believed that institutions would build our futures. We believed in and trusted government, our educational systems, in corporations, in what famous people told us. Well, things haven't quite turned out so well.
I'm not here yelling at the kids to "get the hell off my lawn" or voting for antediluvian, misogynistic plutocrats who want to take us back to 1959. I'm pointing out a truism: that young people today don't trust or respect institutions, and don't envision their futures inside big enterprises. And this is all for the good.
A commonly-held criticism of millennials is that they don't give their loyalty and commitment without being sure they're getting something in return, and in the short-term. Growing up, I just assumed that if I committed myself fully to an organization, it would reciprocate -- recognizing my loyalty with money and promotions. I was foolish, of course, and young people today are smarter and more transactional than we were. The kids aren't on my lawn but are starting companies and side gigs.
Beliefs and assumptions about work are based upon an understanding of how the world works. Millennials are rightfully skeptical about institutions, and they're well aware of the yawning gap between what organizations (companies, governments) say they'll do and what they actually do and deliver.
Trust has never been in shorter supply than now (Ok, I don't recall the 1960s all that well). The only job security you have is what's in between your ears. Young people know this intuitively, and are ready to build things themselves, including trust, communities, and companies. They're not waiting for permission or the right moment, as people from my generation so often did.
After three decades working for big institutions (law firms, banks, training companies, and colleges), I can say without doubt that life as a self-employed creative professional is far more lucrative, more fun, more challenging, more scary, and more hopeful than any job I've ever had or imagined having. It's also more secure, because I'm building my business and myself every day, learning and growing along the way. Unlike my days toiling at the bank, I can now drop a client that doesn't respect what I do. I've done this a number of times and it's the scariest and most valuable thing any self-employed professional can do.
I've found that I need to learn, constantly, and need to explore the subjects that I'm most passionate about -- what makes people healthy and happy, how we can become more compassionate and supportive as individuals, organizations, and communities, how we align our values with our work-lives in ways that give us meaning and passion, how we can improve our capacity to be creative, productive, and more fully human.
Of course, I don't have the answers, but I'm asking big questions and searching every day for answers. As Voltaire once wrote, "we should judge a person not by their answers but by the quality of their questions." I get to read, to talk with smart people, and share the things I'm learning with others (my readers) -- and make a living to boot.
I've found that I don't need to be a "Human Resources Generalist" at some downtown insurance company or big bank to be happy, but I do need to keep satisfying my curiosity about myself, my fellow human beings, and how the world works and might be designed to work even better. I'm versatile, multidisciplinary, data-driven but also need to be outdoors.
I've also found that I need to build community around me, to find people who are curious and open-minded and creative. People who are fully themselves. These people come in all ages, all colors, all sizes and sexual-orientations, but they are courageous enough to ask "is this the best we can do?" and hard-working enough to seek out answers.
We can put our trust in institutions or ourselves or in community, but we're in for a scary ride no matter what. Nobody gets out of this alive, but we can still model good behavior. What are the major challenges of our time? Believing in anything, building anything that lasts more than 5 minutes in a world awash in instant gratification, slowing down enough to reflect upon who we are and what we might want for ourselves and our world.
Trust in institutions is broken -- at least for now, but what do we put in its place? Distrust of each other -- turning on each other in a battle for scarce resources, scarce human dignity? A dog-eat-dog Hobbesian race to the bottom where only the strong and the rich get to thrive while the rest of us suffer from a systemic lack of resources and hope? I'll pass on that, thank you very much.
We need to re-build trust and dignity from the ground up, in our own lives and with the people around us, hoping to bring ripple effects that can impact the dystopian hellscape of our current political climate. We have to build something new, and that means being mature enough to understand that in a "winner-takes-all" culture, most of us will end us losers. The game is broken for nearly all of us.
We don't need to embrace anything we don't believe in or wouldn't want for ourselves. The best solution is often to change the game we're playing, not playing by rules we haven't or can't agree to. We have the freedom to set our own goals, to invest in the things (work, relationships, what we do and say) that make us fully ourselves. We are all born with a soul, and I don't think we have to lose it or sell it along the way. Some people do, yes, but you have to make your own choices independent of what others do. The choices you make define you as an individual and contribute to defining our entire culture, so choose carefully.