Are We the Only Generation Who Isn’t Selling Out?

Only true ’90s kids will get a Reel Big Fish “Sell Out” reference.

Today we’re looking at the Harvard Business Review, with an article titled “Every Generation Wants Meaningful Work—but Thinks Other Age Groups Are in It for the Money.”

In order to find out if there were generational differences in definitions of meaningful work, my colleague and I started our investigation the old-fashioned way: by asking people. We interviewed five employees from each generation, inquiring about how important meaningful work was for them, what they find meaningful in the job they currently do, what their ideal job would be, and whether they saw any generational differences in definitions of meaningful work.

It turns out that everyone surveyed wanted meaningful work, though they all defined “meaningful” differently. Traditionalists (which is apparently the name of the generation that preceded the Baby Boomers) wanted personal growth while helping other people. Boomers want to achieve personal goals. Generation Xers want work-life balanceMillennials want community and they want to serve the community.

But here’s where it gets interesting:

One of the most striking findings was that every generation perceived that the other generations are only in it for the money, don’t work as hard, and do not care about meaning.

Is that true? I can see how Traditionalists might think Boomers are too self-centered and Boomers might think Gen-Xers aren’t willing to put in the hours. And Millennials are all selfies and brunch and not working hard enough to keep industries alive. (RIP, beer.)

I’ve never really thought that other generations were “just in it for the money.” I do think that the way we relate to money changes as we get older—you did read Christine Hennessey’s piece about turning 35 this morning, right?—and those of us who enter the workforce thinking that money is less important than meaning, or that taking a job you don’t want is selling out, might at some point, change our minds.

Except… the thing about the Millennial generation, and at least part of the Gen-X generation, is that we haven’t really had the chance to sell out. We’ve barely had the chance to buy in. We’d love to take a job for the money, instead of combining one job with two side hustles and three roommates. The joke is that we can only afford toast and coffee, and the other half of the joke is that toast and coffee cost $25 these days.

At this point I’d link to one of those stories proving that today’s workers are more productive than any previous workers in history, while earning less money, but I don’t want to be one of those people that claims other generations don’t know about hard work.

And anyway, I know that other generations are familiar with hard work. After all, they can’t afford to retire.