How Gen Y Can Reinvent Work-Life Balance

It’s May again, that exciting time of year when newly-minted college graduates venture out into the world and attempt to find a job. Or perhaps go to Europe and attempt to find themselves instead until the hiring freezes are lifted.  What will increase their chances of success?

It seems as though it’s getting harder and harder just getting onto the bottom rung of the “career ladder” (a term which, as someone who works in HR, I can tell you is on its way out as an inappropriate metaphor for the working world – think less in terms of defined rungs and more in terms of the moving staircases in the Harry Potter movies – you never know where you’ll end up). What happened to slogging through a terrible entry-level job booking meeting rooms and fetching coffee, paying one’s dues in order to move up to a better job in a year or two? Is that still necessary, or have things changed?

Well, as it turns out, a lot of things of changed. Many articles have been written about them: an economic slump which has meant declining hire rates and more people being let go; a majority of baby boomers who were supposed to be leaving the workforce in order to live out their golden years on pensions we’re paying for who are not; a glut of “over-qualified” university graduates with little practical experience (which, as we all know, entry-level coffee-making jobs require) who are driving up competition for the few full-time jobs that are out there; and organization structures that are getting flatter, with fewer roles at the top. So the situation now is that one can work making coffee and booking meeting rooms for three or four years and perhaps find there’s no promotional pot-of-gold at the end of the rainbow, or find that it’s still a few years out.

So where does that leave new graduates? If “paying your dues” was the baby boomer way to climb the corporate ladder (which actually existed then), what happens now? As my favourite career blogger, Penelope Trunk, once wrote: paying dues is out; that kind of lifestyle doesn’t allow for real growth or balance at work, because it forces new recruits to work ridiculous hours doing menial tasks. (It also sets a precedent that’s hard to follow once you have commitments outside of work.)

What’s better? In theory, doing many different things to acquire enough experiences to figure out what we really want to do over the long term. One of the advantages new grads have is the freedom to move around and go where the jobs are. But the trouble with this theory is that the way the job market is structured now, we need to be very sure of what jobs we want, specialize early, and be prepared to slog it out for several years gaining “relevant experience” in our field. There is little room now for dilettantism, or having jobs “on the side.” Everything is a career choice.

Take the classic “job on the side” for everything from aspiring writers to rock stars: teaching. Teaching used to be the kind of thing that anybody could do (and there were, accordingly, great teachers and some not-so-great teachers in the mix). Now students are fighting tooth and nail to get a place at teacher’s college, often resorting to attending a school in a different country. And once they graduate, the job market looks terrible – there is a two-stage application process even to be considered for a supply teaching job.  And don’t even get me started on academia as a career.

So despite the fact that it’s better to do different things, we’re now seeing a kind of apprenticeship model reborn, with high entrance requirements to every guild. Career experts say that Gen Yers will have something like 10 different careers in their lives – but in order to do so, we’ll need to have transferable skills, and know very well how to market them. In practical terms, this means that job-hopping, or even industry-hopping, is key, to prove all the different places in which one’s skills have been useful. It’s a kind of paradox where focus and diversity of experience are battling for dominance.

One solution might be to have multiple income streams, or to get experience with various combinations of paid and unpaid work. (Or maybe to start a blog and wind up with a movie or book deal out of it.) Like the realization that your romantic partner can’t be everything to you, we’re now seeing the idea that your main job can’t be everything either, from a remunerative or skills-building perspective. (Forget the idea that a job by itself can’t make you happy in life; we exposed that fallacy several years ago.) This trend is called having a “portfolio career,” that is, using a functional skill to diversify revenue streams.

We’re used to seeing this with careers in things like music, where a conductor will (for example) have a community choir, a church gig, some wedding performances on the go, and a few students all at the same time. When one revenue stream dries up, he or she will pick up another. But it’s new for accountants, or those who might want to mix traditional employment (at a major corporation, say) with self-employment. They key is diversity within a specialization, having skills that people will pay for and capitalizing on them in several different ways.

It also means that members of this generation will have to live with more uncertainty about their careers. Perhaps this is the price we’ll pay for more control over the skills we use and how we spend our time day-to-day. Does this signify a shift back to a pre-industrial time where people could choose how much they worked? Not fully, I’m sure, but it may be the beginning of a new, hybrid system where workers can control their output and work to their real interests more. Maybe this is the new “work-life balance.”

If, that is, all these new grads ever manage to get hired into that first job.

What do you think? Will you try to mix paid and unpaid work? Do you plan on job-hopping or industry-hopping? Do you anticipate that many members of Gen Y will choose to have multiple/multifaceted careers? Or is this a trend that will only affect a small subset of the population? Is it better to work a terrible (paying) job for three years or to get lots of volunteer experience instead?

6 Responses to How Gen Y Can Reinvent Work-Life Balance

  1. Ben says:

    Interesting points…On the topic of Gen Y you might be interested to see this video post “jack in the box” by Vineet Nayar.

    • Kathryn Exon says:

      Thanks, Ben. This is a very interesting video post, and I would agree that both schools and corporations are failing to prepare students to think creatively — not least by not being able to work together.

      Of course, as a former humanities student, I’d also point out that the kind of graduates that seem to be most successful in the short term search for employment (which maybe could turn into the long term, as I explored a bit in an earlier post) are those who graduate from professional programs like law, business, engineering, etc. And not at all to take anything away from these kinds of programs (we need all sorts in the world), but their curricula are generally very prescriptive, focused on teaching facts and models to be memorized and regurgitated in contrast to the open-ended curricula that one would find in History, Philosophy, and the like. If we really want workers to be creative we need to teach them a broad array of subjects that teach them HOW to think, not only WHAT to think. And we need to get corporations to understand that diversity of background is important, too, because a whole room full of business students won’t necessarily come up with as good a solution as a room full of students from all disciplines.

      Thanks for posting this!

  2. Asaad Faquir says:


    I like what you are saying, although I am a bit unsure of the point you are trying to make. To answer the open question you are asking, I think you have to view the world through the changing eyes of Millennials. I have written and posted on a number of different blogs on this topic and all based around the central theme that cultural clash is coming. As you say here Boomers aren’t willing to leave their jobs at the top or the bottom. So poor planning on their part becomes the challenge facing their children. It is a fascinating conundrum.

    IMHO, I also don’t think organizations are truly getting flatter, I think they are just keeping the promotions under tighter control. Gone are the days where longevity promotions take place, in the new workplace merit promotions are the norm, not the pleasant surprise as they had been for so long.

    Ultimately however, I think your last paragraph is building in the right direction. The new generation will face competition from all sides. The speed at which they will have to compete is incredible and at current the stigma they have to strip away is very heavy. I can tell you as a current job seeker though, that reading job descriptions gives you the sense that companies want more rounded skills, reading the job qualifications proves to you they do not. So multiple skill sets, multiple careers, whether your skills are transferable or not can cause problems, problems, problems… especially in a tight labor market.

    • Kathryn Exon says:

      You make a good point, Aasad, about multiple problems in having multiple skill sets. People want resumes to scream skills and experience instead of showing jobs that are only tangibly related. And with so many resumes that can do that, those that do only have tangibly related experience (which in a better labour market might signal diversity of thought/experience) are in trouble.

      I think the wandering nature of this post in some ways reflects the very real confusion this generation feels. We’re getting all kinds of conflicting messages: specialize in something “marketable” and “employable” (which might not even be true anymore), but make sure you’re well-rounded and have a diversity of experience. Job-hop to get many different skills – but make sure they’re all in some way related. It’s a challenge to navigate, and even harder to make decisions when a variety of options just aren’t out there.

      One comment about the boomer generation: I’ve been thinking recently that maybe part of their way of mitigating the crisis they’ve created for Gen Y by not leaving the workplace (whether is it conscious or subconscious or even accidental mitigation) is by supporting their own children much more than their parents would have: letting them live at home longer, hovering over potential hiring managers, generally helping them get a foot in the door. It’s a constant refrain these days that boomers’ parents would never have dreamed of offering this kind of support. But maybe their kids didn’t need it as badly. Thoughts?

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. Scott Christian says:

    I think the music example is a good one. Unless you’re that 0.05 percent brilliant, you probably can’t make a living as a solo performer alone. My most successful musician friends are all that way because they branched out hard and fast.

    Unless your education came with a skill in a field that needs that skill, I think everyone should get used to the idea that we have access to an inventory of skills accrued, way beyond our education. I think today’s success relies on being able to really sell these in an interview, or cobbling together a decent income employing them in a variety of different situations.


  4. Asaad Faquir says:

    I think you have touched on something in the response that I completely agree with. I had never thought of the “let em stay here” as a mitigant for the boomers refusing to leave the workplace, but I see it clearly now that you mention it. I think you are definitely onto something there, and I may steal my own blog post topic from this train of thought…

    As far as the diverse resume goes… I think the issue is two fold… I mean in the right situation virtually all skills are tangible and transferable, but the problem is with the amount of unemployment that exists hiring companies can afford the luxury of picking only the skills they want and ignoring anyone who has skills over and above, or below the qualification mark. I mean in reality at current, if a company wanted a 5’5″ white female, with brown hair, blue eyes, 7+ years of sales experience, an Ivy League (or jr Ivy) education, who drives a black BMW, is left handed, right brained, speaks mandarin and has previously had knee surgery… they could find EXACTLY that. On the flip side, to highlight the definition of crazy, if you always do what you have always done, you are always going to get what you always got… so progressiveness in corporations, is only found in the classroom.

    For example, me personally, I have an MBA in Finance and an MBS in HR Management. I have worked for 5+ years at a mid-management and senior management levels in operations no less, where business acumen is valued. I know both sides of corporate capital and I know how to operate a business. However no love is cast my way in HR, because I haven’t “worked with a database system” or done HR admin work… I get no love in Finance because well, I don’t really love Finance so I try best not to get labeled with that one… and I get no love in Operations, because I was in a particular industry… So while I should actually be an IDEAL candidate, and every CEO or COO you hear speak says people with my skill set are highly desired… you have to get past the HR admin… and the hiring manager… who don’t care and possibly don’t understand what there CEO or COO on high says. Now add in the complicating factor that I am a savvy Millennial. Add in the fact that no matter what industry or profession you are in most people looking to hire me at the lower levels automatically assume I want $100 Billion dollar (pinky to side of lips), when I don’t… I have never made more than 60K, but I LOVED my jobs… or they assume I will be promoted ahead of them because I possibly have qualifications and skills they don’t have, am younger, and therefore won’t hire me based purely on the threat of working for me in the future… which I can’t argue with, I do want to be their boss… but maybe, just maybe I am actually a decent guy to work with or for. Maybe me as your boss means you get my respect… MAYBE when I’m in charge you are always protected… but no, alas I still sit here unemployed, frustrated and wondering what a guy with a proven track record, excellent recommendations, and a desirable skill set has to do to get notices… Blog on his own, and respond to other blogs I suppose!

    Thanks for letting me indulge, I will step down from my ledge/soap box.

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