What Is a “Real” Job? Why Millennials Don’t Agree on the Answer (and What This Means for the Future of Work)

FT Contributor
A young woman in a graduation cap and gown quizzically holds up a cardboard sign that says, “Now what?”

In a recent study of millennials, almost half of those surveyed stated that a “real job” does not exist. This widespread opinion may paint a concerning portrait for our future, considering that by 2020, millennials will account for 46% of the workforce. These changing cultural opinions about work could portend large-scale economic distress, and, in light of that, it would be wise for us to start asking some questions. What is happening, why it is happening, and how to fix it are concerns that should be addressed now rather than later.

Table of Contents

The Great Recession Changed Everything

In the same study, only 2 out of 139 respondents stated that a “real job” was characterized by “making lots of money.” Rather, the majority stated that a “real job” was one that they could use to “pay all [their] bills” and gain financial autonomy. This may seem like a purely semantic distinction, but it may be indicative of millennials’ underlying attitudes about jobs.

Just as the economic circumstances of the household one grew up in often strongly influence an individual’s future ideas and habits about spending, so too does the economic situation of their country impact their financial views during that formative period. The fact that millennials grew up during the Great Recession likely has a lot to do with how millennials now view what a “real job” is.

Millennials and the Housing Market

For decades, financial security was represented by the image of a white picket fence. Unsurprisingly, it lost much of that significance following the housing crash during the Great Recession. The downfall of the white picket fence as a symbol may have shaken belief in the existence of “real jobs.”

Among a flood of op-eds commenting on how millennials are increasingly choosing to rent rather than buy homes, there are many linking that shift to a reduction of loan options — but that outlook may not be appraising the issue through a wide enough lens. The problem is likely the necessity of home loans, not a lack of options for them. Whereas previously, the be-all-end-all of financial security was homeownership, millennials watched that facade of security crumble.

For a generation who (according to the survey) values autonomy above all else when it comes to their finances, and already grapples with the weight of student loans, it is no surprise that they might balk at the idea of a home loan. Whether consciously or not, the rejection of homeownership — and, by extension, home loans — may, in part, be a rejection of the previous generation’s classification of what a “real job” is. It may feel unsafe to build a house on a foundation of debt.

Millennials’ Work Ethic Is Shaped by Change

Because millennials were raised during the Dot-Com Boom, they are more accustomed to remote options than older generations, and this may be one of the factors that cause some to be particularly protective of their autonomy in the workplace. For better or worse, technology is not only streamlining tasks, but precipitating a cultural shift toward working from home and a “gig economy.”

Technological advancement is spurring on the gig economy in two major ways. First of all, technology is replacing the need for many “routine jobs.” Those jobs are steadily going extinct, and leaving an economic void in their absence. On the other hand, as stated, people now have many options for working from home; they are not limited by location or ability to travel. This not only means that they have a lot of options for when they can do work, but also for where their work is based. A Californian could easily work for an office in New York. Although the shift in availability for forty-hours-per-week jobs may have been a crippling blow to the economy in the past, expanding options for flexible remote work has made the change a non-issue.

The rise of the gig economy may be partly to blame for the common millennial opinion that there aren’t “real jobs.” They were taught that a job was 9-to-5, five days per week, and that is becoming less and less typical.

Are Millennials “Job Hoppers” or Just Disillusioned?

Millennials have a reputation as job-hoppers, and the available statistics seem to agree. A contributing factor may be the fact that the same freedom and flexibility that the internet can provide on the job also eases workers’ ability to leave their job. Job boards and the option for video chat interviews facilitate job hunting, and because of this, it is incredibly tempting to go see if the grass really is greener each time. When it repeatedly is not, the disillusionment with each successive job is fueled even more. There is no doubt that every generation dreams of securing their dream job, but millennials have so many options and still often have no luck finding the elusive perfect job.

Burnout and Vacation Time

Another possibility is that rather than being burnouts, millennials are just burned out. Americans employers notoriously offer poor vacation time. Keeping this in mind, perhaps millennials’ habit of job-hopping is a symptom of feeling chained to their job. This theory seems to be supported by how much more millennials in the U.S. value time off and travel compared to previous generations. This attitude may be met with derision from some who buy into the stereotype of millennials being lazy and spoiled, but time off is not a bad thing. American culture has demonized vacation time, but it is beneficial to mental well-being, it is good for business, and it promotes a more educated culture. Keeping the workforce exhausted and disillusioned doesn’t help anyone.

A “Real” Job Does Not Enjoyment Make

In the aforementioned study of millennials and what they value in the workplace, “something they would enjoy and have a passion for doing,” was ranked second-to-last in value from the respondents. Since millennials often don’t even believe “real jobs” exist, it should come as no surprise that they might find the idea of a “real job” that they actually enjoy to be far outside the realm of possibility.

This disheartening statistic may indicate that many millennials lack a feeling of purpose. While it is not always realistic to “follow your passion,”  feeling a sense of ambition and accomplishment is an important aspect of job satisfaction. Being stuck between the rock of constant innovation disruption in the American job market, and the hard place of unsustainable business practices of the past, could be causing millennials to feel that there are no answers. New and old career paths alike are often too unstable to facilitate personal investment.

Much of the millennial generation may have gained some mistrust for the institutions of the previous generation, which caused the Great Recession, increased the wealth gap, and decreased regulation on predatory practices in big business. Why wouldn’t they be skeptical of the idea that a business could be a source of happiness or fulfillment?

A “Real” Job Is a Job

The very fact that anyone feels impelled to distinguish what a “real job” is points to the likely problem. People are comparing modern jobs to an obsolete prototype of what a job “should be.” Rather than prescribing what a job is or what it should be, it is likely more healthy for the economy and our citizenry to allow jobs to adapt to cultural shifts naturally.

Image Source: Deposit Photos

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