My Brief Observations on The Changing Generational Views on Vocation and Calling

As I’ve been making my way in the realm of the self employed, I’ve had cause to stop and consider the different ways and means by which people make a living. Just the other day, I made an interesting obvervation concerning how the generational view on employment has seemed to change. When discussing what someone’s family member does as their vocation, this seems to be the general breakdown of how it’s viewed:

“The Greatest Generation” – those who grew up in the depression and were young adults during WWII. My grandparents. They tend to be focused on the company that one works for. “Yes, he works for Boeing.” Only when their family member is self employed are they forced to consistently explain what role the person plays. “He’s self employed. He works on computers.”

The Baby Boomers. This is my parents’ generation. They seem to focus on a job title. “Our son is a Systems Administrator.” The focus is less on the company, likely because during my parents’ generation it was becoming less and less likely that a person would work for the same company for their entire life.

Millenials, AKA Generation Y. This is my generation, myself having been born in the poster year for Gen Y: 1982. When asked about our vocation, we seem to have two parallel thoughts. The first is that we don’t seem to see our work as separate from the rest of our life. We have had the fortune to build on the hard work of previous generations to be able to freely choose a vocation that we love and feel called to. “What do you do?” has a larger meaning to us than it seems to have for prior generations. The second thought is that we define what we do not by the company we work for, or the job title we’ve been given, but by a job or project description. “I work on the computer systems that allows a business to function competitively.” We also tend to inject our sense of “calling” into the description. I only just now realized that that’s probably why I’ve lately been changing the way I describe my work: “I make companies happy about the technology that runs their business.” That’s vastly more touchy-feely than my grandparents’ generation commonly expressed their vocation, and yet it’s effortless and natural for me.

I’m sure that I’m not the only one to make these observation. I’m certain that there’s plenty of scientific and pop-science writings on it. I’m just not terribly familiar with it personally. Have you noticed a similar thing? Either way, which culture do you come from? I’m sure this is a different experience in different countries around the world. What is your generation and how do you explain your work to others?


  1. Adam Compton

    November 19, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    I’m the same age as you are, and I’ve noticed something similar, but I think it’s perhaps modulated by the difficulty I have in explaining exactly what it is I do to non-technical people. I find that I have to heavily tailor my job description for the person I’m speaking with, both on the axis of how much they know about computers, and on the axis of how much they care about me. 😉 For instance, in casual party conversation, I just say that I fix computers and leave it at that. With technical peers, I can go into much greater detail.

    I can’t say that I think of my work as a calling; it’s more the thing I can’t not do, as the saying goes. However, I think you’re spot on in describing the trend towards being less and less company-focused and more career-focused across generations. I definitely think it’s a rational response to changing corporate culture. Both of my parents worked 20+ years at the same company, but to me it seems foolhardy to expect that kind of longevity out of a single job. I worked at a place where they let somebody go while he was on paternity leave; just packed up his desk and mailed it to him. In a corporate culture like that, defining yourself by a specific company or job description is asking for trouble.


    • Wesley David

      November 19, 2011 at 12:18 pm

      Yes, the lack of loyalty invested in a company seems to go both ways. Companies are more profit (or rather, money) driven and people as individuals seem to be checking out of a community mindset in many ways. 20+ Years in the same company turns me off because it seems that there would be less opportunity for growth and being able to perform your best work – not just the fear of being in a soulless organization. However if it was “soulful” and constantly presented growth opportunities, that would be great! How many places are like that though?


      • Adam Compton

        November 19, 2011 at 12:27 pm

        I’m definitely of the opinion that the companies started it. 😉 After seeing so many people in so many different fields devastated by outsourcing and downsizing, I think it’s silly to put any faith in the idea that a company has its employees’ best interests at heart. There are some companies which operate that way, offering their employees opportunities for growth and career advancement, training, support when they get sick, etc., but they’re few and far between. I think Paul Graham’s essay about doing what you love is one of my favorite on this subject; if you can’t trust in any given company to shepherd your career, you have to do it yourself.


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