Millennials and the Myth of Purpose

As a millennial, I seek to live and work with purpose. I want a meaningful and fulfilling job.

Well, that’s what Google tells me, anyway.

As a millennial, I am not concerned with making or saving money. Owning things does not bring me the satisfaction I so desperately seek. Material success is not on my radar.

Then again, I do have to pay my rent.

As a millennial, I want to do something that matters.

Yet here I am, halfway through my twenties, and I’m still not sure what that elusive “something” might be.

The practice of packaging different cohorts into neat little boxes is more popular than ever, with millennials being one of the most-discussed groups. However, unless I am one of very few outliers – a thrilling proposition, considering my millennial propensity for “being special” – it seems that many of these generational theories miss the mark. After all, here I am, a 25 year old with a nine-to-five job, a simple (but not minimalist) apartment, a monogamous relationship, a savings account that is never empty, a scarcely used passport, and – most importantly – a lack of drive toward fulfilling my life’s purpose, whatever that may be.

Yet despite the internet’s insistence that I have a central purpose to drive my every action, I can’t help but feel that I am doing all right without one. I may be purposeless, but I am not aimless.

The Problem With Generational Research

I know that I’m not the only twenty-something who doesn’t fit the millennial stereotype. Generational research simply can’t tell us everything we want to know about one huge, diverse group of people. Individually, us outliers are mere anecdotes, but together, we form an important trend.

One of the greatest issues with these studies is that they do not recognize the many different demographics that can fall within each generation. Such research often positions the views and behaviors of one specific subgroup as relevant to the masses. To say that the experiences of a white, upper-middle class, urban university student could strongly parallel those of an entire country (or even continent) of youth is laughable – yet this is exactly the type of conclusion drawn from many a generational study.

Not surprising, then, is the fact that the image of an entrepreneurial “purpose-driven” millennial is not entirely supported by statistics. The 2016 US Census found that the number of new startups is lower now than it has been in nearly 40 years. Additionally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the number of jobs created by such establishments dropped by approximately 1 million from 1994 to 2015, with the lowest point reached in post-recession 2010.

These aren’t the only numbers that contradict the myths propagated by generational research. While the idea of the chic, urban, office-bound millennial persists, this image doesn’t account for the many millions of young people working in service industries, retail, and the trades. Of the 323 million people living in the US in 2016, 102.6 million worked in the service industry. And one smaller CareerBuilder survey of 3200 workers reported that 44% of those aged 25–34 have a side gig in addition to their full-time job; this contradicts not only the ever-popular “millennials are lazy” myth, but also the idea that young people are prioritizing “purpose over paychecks.”

With research and consulting firms constantly conducting and reporting on small studies, and with news sites and bloggers alike drawing on this limited data to form wide-reaching conclusions, it is no surprise that the results are often contradictory. For every statistic reported or statement made about millennials, there is another to directly contradict it. These perceptions have also changed as millennials have aged. In 2012, one Forbes article stated that millennials prioritize “money, fame, and image” over intrinsic goals. By 2016, another Forbes post asserted that millennials actually value experiences over owning things. In 2014, millennials were dubbed “the true entrepreneur generation” – once again by a Forbes author. But by 2017, it had been concluded that millennials were actually starting fewer businesses than older generations before them.

Perhaps there is better research to be done – research that acknowledges differences while also looking at similarities, or that looks at the different members of a generation within their own respective contexts and circumstances. After all, there are aspects of the world that, by virtue of our age, no millennial has been able to avoid. It’s true that we’ve witnessed the takeover of digital, that we have felt the effects of an economic recession, that we are aware and perhaps responsible for a shifting political climate. We have all experienced the effects of these changes – but, importantly, we have not all experienced these effects in the same way.

The Persisting Purpose Narrative

Despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary, the idea of a purpose-driven generation of youth refuses to go away. This begs the question: What is the purpose of the purpose narrative? Why do we continue telling a story that has been repeatedly proven to be false – or, at the very least, flawed?

For the Gen Xers and baby boomers who came before the millennials, life often followed a clear, defined, and linear trajectory. There were clear milestones to reach, and they happened in a specific order: finish high school, attend college or begin work (the choice between the two depending largely on social class), buy a house, get married, have children, retire. With such clear goals came a sense of purpose – when one stage of life was “completed,” one could move smoothly into the next.

But with drastic changes to the global political, social, and economic climate has come a time of uncertainty. Gone are the days of linear life paths and pre-planned purpose. This new ambiguity affects people of all ages; many middle-aged and older adults have been forced to adjust their long-held plans, whether that means financially supporting a child who is well beyond age 18 or continuing to work past the age of 65, for just a couple examples.

Millennials are different: We were raised in this state of upheaval. Rather than lamenting the loss of linear life paths, many of us are exploring and creating purpose in entirely new ways. In a world of endless possibilities, why would a young person choose to be limited to one central reason for being? This type of purpose, which was key to the lives of our parents and grandparents when they were young adults, does not mesh with the reality of the world or our place within it. It’s a dated narrative – so why do non-millennials insist on assigning it to their younger peers?

We All Define Our Own “Purpose”

The wide-held belief that millennials are a “purpose-driven” generation has been drawn from limited and non-inclusive research. In failing to clearly define purpose, these studies have conflated the idea of individual purpose with that of a corporate mission statement. But people are of course not companies – and this means their actions can rarely be boiled down to a singular motivation. A person may very well want to create significant change in the world. But they will also be motivated by other aspirations, like the desire to have a family, to have financial stability, to be active within their community, to have a meaningful spiritual life, or to create and share their art. And, of course, they will be limited by their needs. How can you volunteer for your community when you are working two jobs to make ends meet? How can you travel the world when you have a family to care for? How can you become a doctor when you can’t afford medical school? How can you attain a position of influence when you must contend with discrimination? In short, how can you live your life according to a central purpose when you have so many desires and responsibilities, and also so many limitations beyond your control?

If having purpose merely means living with intention, I know many people who fit the bill – and also several who do not. But if having purpose is about fulfilling a central cause that drives all actions, I’m not so sure every individual can have it. While a company may have such a cause driving its decisions, human lives are far more complex. Millennials may very well want to live their lives with purpose – but purpose comes in many forms.

There are young people starting amazing businesses aimed at tackling some of the world’s most complex challenges. They’re also getting involved in politics, starting their own families, building careers, buying homes, giving their time to good causes, and sharing their stories. Many are like me – just living each day, striving to make good decisions while enjoying the ride. In this way, we’re no different from our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and others before them. At its core, I believe our central purpose is simple, and though it is universal, it comes in many forms. At the end of the day, regardless of our age, background, or circumstances, it is just this: we all want to live.


the author

Taylor Dennis

Taylor Dennis is a senior editor at Idea Couture. She is the managing editor of MISC.