I’ve received many emails from millennials who’ve read my articles about taking time off from work to travel, or taking time off from the United States to live abroad, and are now seeking advice. Many of these emails go like this:
“I returned to my hometown after XXX months traveling/living abroad in XXXXX place. I just started a corporate job a month ago but I feel pretty trapped, although I’m making money. What should I do?”
In many of these emails, the writer acknowledges that after months of travel, eventually they got tired of “fooling around” abroad and instead started thinking about coming home to “get serious.”
I can relate to this feeling. After fifteen months of travel, I realized that more travel for pleasure’s sake, regardless of how much better it can be than life back in the States, was not the right next step for me. I realized it was no longer time to simply continue absorbing new experiences, seeing new things and having more fun.
But here’s where travelers seem to get confused: there’s a difference between becoming more intentional about your lifelong work and working a job that society may respect but you can’t personally stand.
First, I want to completely acknowledge that I say this from a privileged standpoint. I can only speak to millennials who have a similar privilege of making decisions not based entirely on financial survival. For folks with debt or other financial obligations, they don’t have the luxury of making decisions simply because they feel “trapped, although I’m making money.” Making money is the only priority.
But curiously, the travelers that email me with angst and anxiety about their work never mention having any looming financial anxiety that influences their decision. They seem to suggest that the only thing keeping them “trapped” in a corporate job is their idea that doing this somehow makes their life more “serious.”
But there’s nothing necessarily “serious” about working a job that doesn’t share your values. As I’ve written before, though bumming around for too long is irresponsible, so is working an unfulfilling job only to feel legitimate. Courtney E. Martin addressed this in her TED talk called “The New Better Off” where she said: “The biggest danger is not failing to achieve the American Dream. The biggest danger is achieving a dream that you don’t actually believe in.”
The Harvard Business Review has suggested that previous generations regret not realizing this earlier. They reported that as people from the Generation X and Baby Boomer generations get older, factors like “family happiness,” “relationships,” “balancing life and work,” and “community service” become more important to them than job titles and salaries. The report quoted a man in his fifties who said he used to define success as “becoming a highly paid CEO.” Now, he defines it as “striking a balance between work and family and giving back to society.”
Instead of the traditional American Dream, Martin challenges young people to “compose a life where what you do every single day, the people you give your best love and ingenuity and energy to, aligns as closely as possible with what you believe.” When travelers get tired of the road, “getting serious” could mean pursuing that goal. Instead of simply agreeing to any job that society holds in high esteem, “getting serious” could mean focusing on finding experiences that align with our personal belief about who we are and who we want to be.
In her TED talk about what millennials should be doing in their 20’s, Psychologist Meg Jay called these experiences “identity capital” because they “add value to who you are” and are “an investment in who you might want to be next.” She advised millennials to spend their 20’s only participating in experiences that fit that definition. These experiences may or may not necessarily become an impressive bullet point on a resume, but they always lead you in the direction of your ultimate goals.
Working a job that adds no value or investment into our future doesn’t necessarily add identity capital. But neither does aimlessly wandering around the globe without any specific intention or goal. Both can become a way of stalling. As Jay says in her talk “I’m not discounting twentysomething exploration here, but I am discounting exploration that’s not supposed to count, which, by the way, is not exploration. That’s procrastination.”
When people write and ask whether they should be traveling more or “getting serious,” I think the answer comes from reframing the question around Martin and Jay’s ideas. It comes from asking “How is my energy right now going towards what I believe?”, “What right now will contribute the most identity capital to my life?”, “What right now will add value to who I am?”, and “How does these experiences right now count?” Both long-term travel and unfulfilling work can become a means of avoiding these questions. All “getting serious” has to mean is confronting them.