Millennials, Vocation, and the Challenge of Economic Change
Religion & Liberty Online

Millennials, Vocation, and the Challenge of Economic Change

Earlier this week, Michael Hendrix offered some striking commentary on the economic future of millennials, fearing that many in our generation are in a similar position as “the horse at the advent of the automobile.”

The economic horizon is shifting, and with such changes come new opportunities. Yet rather than being energized and agile in response, many are content to simply shrug and plod along.

As Hendrix concludes, there’s hope in the reality that we are not horses, but creative, spiritual beings, fashioned in the image of God:

It isn’t so much that we’ll have winners and losers that gets me. It’s that many millennials aren’t facing up to the tough choices they’ll need to make to align their visions with reality. When the internal combustion engine came along and rendered horsepower to the pages of Motor Trend, these animals had little choice over their fate. We are different. We can look square-eyed into a future of vast change. We can work hard at the tasks set before us, for we were made to do so. Put another way, we can avoid the glue factory.

The basic idea of the American Dream has come under scrutiny in recent years — most strongly, it seems, from various corners of the church. And though some critiques are clumsier than others, all seem to point to at least one critical reality: With increased prosperity comes increased temptation to give way to an overly individualized and materialistic understanding of vocation and calling. Where our ancestors seized economic opportunity through hard work and service, paving the way for a more comfortable life, we now show a propensity to conflate the former (opportunity) with the latter (a 4-bedroom house in the burbs).

If Hendrix is correct, as I suspect he is, and millennials are set to continue ignoring this trajectory of drastically shifting needs, it may serve to affirm that those critiques about misaligned individualism have some teeth. If we are stubborn and resistant to adjusting our service in order to meet the broader needs of society, have we become too self-centered in our thinking about vocation?

I’m reminded of this helpful bit by David Brooks:

Today’s graduates are also told to find their passion and then pursue their dreams. The implication is that they should find themselves first and then go off and live their quest. But, of course, very few people at age 22 or 24 can take an inward journey and come out having discovered a developed self.

Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. A relative suffers from Alzheimer’s and a young woman feels called to help cure that disease. A young man works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so his department can function. Another young woman finds herself confronted by an opportunity she never thought of in a job category she never imagined. This wasn’t in her plans, but this is where she can make her contribution.

Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.

“Our working puts us in the service of others,” writes Lester DeKoster. “The civilization that work creates puts others in the service of ourselves. Thus, work restores the broken family of humankind.”

What is to happen, then, if we get this backwards — elevating our own personal efforts without regard to the needs of others?

God calls us to specific callings and careers, and he can do so without our having some elaborate understanding of the ever-shifting global economy. But the pursuit of such callings requires active prudence and discernment, and that involves reconciling our inward witness with the more obvious needs of our neighbors. If we “feel called” to an area that, in the present or future economy, fails to actually fill a need, it should give us pause. For some, it will require taking an inventory of ultimate allegiances, tearing plenty to the pieces in the process.

The blessings of opportunity and self-empowerment are to be used for the service of God and neighbor. If they are squandered on idols of comfortability and the mirage of self-enacted self-fulfillment, the room for “dreaming” will get mighty cramped, mighty quick.

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Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.