I went to my high school reunion over the Thanksgiving break and, despite my expectations, I had a fantastic time. It was interesting to interact with the same people from years ago now that I’m a lot sassier, a lot more flamboyant and much more outgoing than I was back then (plus it helps that I’m a bit skinnier and I dress a whole lot better). I had an escape route planned with the friend that I went with, but I didn’t need it and was one of the last ones to leave.
Since I’ve done a really poor job of keeping track of everyone, I had to ask the obligatory “What are you doing?” to get the ball rolling. And once they finished, they turned the question right back to me, “How about you? Where are you now?”
Every single person, without exception, defined themselves by where they are in their careers now. Some people have jobs. Some people are still in school. Some people are unfortunately unemployed (and I gave all of them a lot of credit for coming since they had to repeat the ‘I can’t find a job’ or ‘I got laid off’ story over and over again). I’m equally guilty of it. My response to the question was, “I’m still living in DC and I work in the HR office for an architecture firm downtown,” or something along those lines. And that was followed by a little bit of detail about what that means: “I’m a people person” or “I talk to people all day”. There’s not enough time to talk more than that.
I wrote a few weeks ago about what Gen Y is looking for career-wise. This whole reunion showed me where the whole idea of “being fulfilled by a job”, whether load of crap or not, comes from. When we talk about who we are, “career” is an obvious milestone that follows graduating from high school and maybe graduating from college. Since there are only a few classmates that have gotten married or had a child, this is the last milestone that we all have in common. And since milestones are how we, as people, define our lives, it makes sense that we define ourselves (at least for now) based on that career. So is it any wonder that we try to add meaning and purpose to that career to justify our decision?
That may change as family or romance or knowledge aspirations develop. But for where a large majority of Gen Yers are right now in their lives, “career” is the most important part of self.
We’ll see how different things are at my next reunion.