What Work Means

Illustration by Jim Frazier

Not long ago, I was talking with a representative of a large private company that recruits at Harvard. The company naturally seeks to make money. As an economics concentrator, I understand and appreciate the role such incentives play.

As a living and breathing senior, though, I also wonder whether that focus aligns with my priorities. I’m not opposed to profit goals—I’ll likely work in the private sector after graduating—but I wanted to understand how one finds personal value in an organization that isn’t mission-driven, so I posed that question to the recruiter.

While I was trying to understand how to fit the company’s work into a moral framework, the recruiter thought I was asking a much more pragmatic question about morale and burnout. I tried rephrasing the question but couldn’t seem to get my point across. It was as though we were speaking two different languages.

This disconnect extends beyond just me and this recruiter. Increasingly, my generation views its employers through a moral lens that is often difficult to communicate to older generations. Indeed, surveys suggest that members of Gen Z—those born between 1996 and 2010—are more likely to seek employers who share their values.

But more than just morals, my generation of Harvard students is placing an unprecedented number of demands on our employers. We want flexibility, subsidized mental health services, financial security, prestige, and the opportunity for self-actualization. All in one job.

The question for me and other students entering the job market, then, is how to reconcile those priorities with actually choosing an employer. As a senior, I’ve been thinking through this question daily, and I’ve recently gained some clarity both on my own path and how my generation could perhaps approach work in a more sustainable way.

Career stress has always occupied seniors’ minds, but our worries are all-consuming. Former dean of freshmen Tom Dingman told me in an interview for a Crimson article last spring that when he was a student in the late 1960s, “People were much less focused on their eventual careers.” Gurney professor of English and professor of comparative literature James Engell said something similar: although students certainly thought about their careers 50 years ago, the “near obsession” that we see today did not exist.

Part of this stress can be explained by the fact that students increasingly see their career as the telos of college. I remember even in freshman year strategizing with my classmates about our jobs after graduation. The percentage of incoming freshmen nationally seeking to “develop a meaningful life philosophy” as an objective of college has fallen by nearly half since 1965, while the percent seeking to “be well-off financially” after school has doubled.

Having entered college with a similar mindset myself, I’ve found it difficult to avoid instrumentalizing every experience at Harvard by asking how it will help me land a certain internship or job. I think most people around me feel similarly. As a result, finding spontaneous or intrinsic fulfillment becomes secondary or is forgotten.

Because college is increasingly viewed as a stepping stone to a job, one’s postgraduate work is the ultimate reflection on our time at Harvard—more than any lessons learned. To take it even further, graduating seniors view their job not just as the goal of their education but as the goal of life. That view may sound bleak, but it makes sense given the institutional and social context into which we’re graduating. Viewed from this angle, the level of stress confronting me and other graduating seniors is more understandable.

I often find myself asking what else there is outside of work. We’re an overwhelmingly secular generation, so religion does not offer the source of meaning it once did. I’m de facto the most religiously observant of my nine roommates only because I go to Hillel a couple times a semester to see friends and eat free food.

The civil society organizations of our parents’ generations—rotary clubs, PTAs, neighborhood associations—have withered. Young Americans are also increasingly delaying marriage to focus on work, further evidence that our professional lives dominate everything else. Even humbler sources of involvement like professional sports fandom and hobbies are less significant for Gen Z. These factors, along with technological distractions, mean that we spend far less time socializing with each other.

So when my friends and I discuss our “futures,” we mean our careers. In these conversations, there’s no acknowledgement that a life outside work exists— certainly not one worth discussing.

This view is so pervasive that, when debating at a Crimson editorial meeting the ethics of working at big tech firms, the only person who noted that one’s work can be separate from one’s impact on the world was a religious classmate.

Because work is the totality of our existence, an all-encompassing reflection of ourselves, it must fulfill every need, including our desire to live some form of a moral life. So, we want our employers to share our values. Eighty-seven percent of Gen Zers say they would quit their jobs if another company better aligned with their values.

Employers have been responsive to these desires for more meaningful work in a tellingly obvious way. When a prominent consulting firm came to campus to recruit students, for example, its representatives spoke about the commitment to sustainability and social impact. My friend who was there remarked to me that the presentation sounded more like the Democratic Party platform than a job description.

Because work is an all-encompassing reflection of ourselves, it must fulfill every need, including our desire to live some form of a moral life.

This value-signaling is often reflected in firms’ recruitment information. The first paragraph of Boston Consulting Group’s (BCG) advertising for its full-time associate role touts the company’s positive impact on the world: “Today, we work closely with clients to embrace a transformational approach aimed at benefiting all stakeholders—empowering organizations to grow, build sustainable competitive advantage, and drive positive societal impact.” Capital One’s recruitment gives examples of “our values in action” and “our core principles,” with very little description of banking itself. Even Goldman Sachs—a firm known for its intense treatment of young employees—notes its goal to “serve to grow” communities in its recruiting efforts for interns from Harvard Business School.

It’s not that these firms are disingenuous or lying. Many do perform a beneficial service, and they’re right to say so. But adopting this language indicates they are intentionally catering to students like me. We want to be told that our role will be socially beneficial, and employers are happy to comply.

This balancing act may seem a bit roundabout. If Gen Zers want their work to reflect their values, why not work at a place whose entire mission is socially positive instead of asking Goldman Sachs to care more about the world? The answer is obvious: because doing so would require sacrificing other priorities, namely working at a prestigious and well-paying job.

If I had to pick one factor that weighs most on College seniors’ minds in picking their first job, it would be prestige. We simply can’t stand to not stand out. But our dual desire for meaningful and prestigious work produces some awkward moments. Seniors planning to work at some of the most prestigious, high-paying, and sought-after firms in the world are surprisingly sheepish about saying so. There’s a dual pride and shame that comes with working at a big consulting firm, for example: pride for the place’s prestige and shame for not pursuing a more service-oriented job.

This is why, for all my peers’ talk about the importance of meaningful work, nearly 60 percent of working Harvard graduates pursue consulting, finance, and technology. That headline number is the outcome of countless seniors agonizing among different priorities, many of which clash with each other. Clearly, prestige and pecuniary concerns often trump more virtuous desires, at least in the short term.

As someone considering both the public and private sectors after graduating, I can’t help but empathize with what seems to be a no-win situation. Either you mostly abandon any mission-driven pursuit, or you go all in on it. Whatever you choose, you’re leaving something on the table. Most of my friends feel the same: even those with amazing full-time return offers from their internships—who often worked 80-hour weeks this summer to get them—are holding out for something even better that might fulfill their multifarious goals.

Beyond the mission of their work, students who now cannot find emotional support from church or spouses seek it from prospective employers. This is why so many firms now emphasize their commitment to employee well-being. The company where I recently did a summer internship openly discussed its support and funding for employee mental health, a practice that would have been unheard of two decades ago. Similarly, BCG claims to invest in “employee well-being” and “safety and security” in its recruitment efforts. Such support is beneficial given the mental health struggles that Gen Z confronts. Some 30 percent of Harvard students have or think they have an anxiety disorder. Mental health funding also makes economic sense from the company’s point of view: unhappy or stressed workers aren’t very productive. But the current dynamic represents an important sociological shift—my generation ranked empathy as the second most important characteristic in a boss, while bosses themselves ranked it fifth.

I’ve experienced this generational divide myself. A couple summers ago, I had an employment offer from one firm that expired before I could hear back from another. Both employers claimed to be invested in my development, but neither was willing to budge on timelines, a refusal I saw as disingenuous. My roommate burst my bubble by pointing out that both companies were acting in their own interests and were very reasonably setting up incentives to get me to sign sooner.

Thinking back, I was clearly being naïve in thinking that these potential employers authentically cared about me. But I don’t think that expectation is uncommon for my generation, and my hurt feelings are likely shared by many others entering the market with similar unrealistic expectations.

All of this was on my mind this past summer, as I thought through my next steps. I had spent the previous few months speaking with friends, mentors, and employees in different fields. Having very recently narrowed down my options for next year, I’ve come to some realizations about how to approach my first job.

First, some perspective is helpful. What one Harvard senior sees as a no-win situation is often the opposite. My friend who’s mulling over his consulting return offer has the option of returning to one of the best firms in the world, with only more opportunity to come.

I’m also trying to remember that my first job is not my entire career. Young workers are much more likely to change jobs frequently. While no company can check every box, we will likely have more than one employer. In the meantime, my generation needs to reinvigorate the cultural and civil society organizations that in the past gave people meaningful pursuits outside of work.

The worst outcome would be to take a job expecting employers to fulfill every priority. Even if a consulting firm tells me that my internship will help solve climate change, I doubt I’ll feel that itch scratched if I take a long-term job with them. That’s fine. Not every job has to be mission-driven, and any job I take will sacrifice some priority for another.

This is a seemingly obvious point but one that’s hard for members of Gen Z to internalize—and I expect to learn it many times myself over the course of my career. My generation’s excessive demands on companies are only setting us up for disappointment—even if it doesn’t strike us until 15 years down the road—since no employer can simultaneously provide prestige, money, purpose, flexibility, and care.  

Aden Barton ’24 is one of this year’s Berta Greenwald Ledecky Fellows.

Read more articles by: Aden Barton

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