Purpose. Engagement. Consonance. These are all lofty words that—for far too long, and by far too many sources—have been assigned only platitudes and unrealistic goals. It can feel like these ideals are for other people, at other times, in other work. But times are changing, and demographic shifts are heralding a new dawn in the expectations around how work should fit into our lives.
For this, we can thank the millennial generation.
Now, I know everyday news stories seem to blame millennials—those born in the 1980s and 1990s—for pretty much everything that goes wrong in the workplace. But millennials are forcing a conversation about work that has never been had before. As they flood the workforce — and they will be 75% of the workforce by 2025 — employee attitudes are shifting. Society as a whole is rethinking what a job should and shouldn’t be.
Technological advances that herald transparency, speed, and limitless possibility have emboldened millennials to expect more from their work sooner and to demand a seat at the table so that they can contribute in bigger ways. No longer satisfied with holding jobs that are separate from the rest of their lives, avid hikers want to work for companies with sound environmental policies; young feminists look for companies that intentionally promote professional development for women; and weekend warrior athletes seek out offices where the shared snacks are healthy and the company hosts outdoorsy outings. These millennials have redefined workplace norms. Together, they are forcing corporations to develop more appealing employment propositions.
But it’s not just millennials pushing for more. As more and more baby boomers—the children of JFK, RFK, and MLK—near retirement, they are going back to their roots in 1960s social justice and searching for encores that matter. In a recent study by Stanford University and Encore.org, one-third of Americans over the age of fifty—nearly 34 million people—stated that they were seeking to fill their time with some purpose beyond just the self.
And Gen Xers are not to be left out. Finding themselves caught between raising children and nursing aging parents, Gen Xers are looking for work that contributes to managing these demands rather than working against them.
Everywhere, at every age, people are waking up and asking, “Is this all there is?” So, is it any wonder that we are trying to figure out how to make “work” and “retirement” not so “retiring”? How can we make retirement meaningful and purposeful?
Finding our Consonance
The most often trod answer is, of course, that we should work or volunteer in the nonprofit sector. Now, don’t get me wrong: I spent twenty years placing people at the highest levels of jobs in c-suites in nonprofits, universities, foundations, and advocacy organizations across this country and around the globe. Working in the nonprofit sector is a wonderful path for many. But it isn’t necessarily the right path for all.
This purpose fallacy forces us to thing that work cannot be meaningful if it isn’t service. And further, we undervalue service if it isn’t sacrifice. I’m here to tell you that you can have meaningful work and a purposeful retirement even if you don’t pursue nonprofit or volunteer work. You can have meaningful work if you have consonance in your work.
Consonance is the sense of frictionless belonging, of momentous stride, of core relevance. It is a guiding force that reveals how your work (whatever that may be) contributes to your overall life’s plan. It connects your daily activities to the success of those around you, and gives you clarity about why you—specifically you, in that seat, in that office, in that box on the organizational chart—matter. Consonance is not just purpose writ large (and lofty). It’s your purpose, freely and clearly defined by you, and put into action through awareness of and alignment with your life’s plan.
Consonance looks different for everyone. And it’s ever-changing, evolving as we age and pass through life’s various stages and adjust our priorities. Yours will be unique to you. The four elements that make up your consonance and allow you to make “retirement” meaningful, however, are fixed.
- Calling is a gravitational pull towards a goal larger than yourself—a business you want to build, a leader who inspires you, a societal ill you wish to remedy, a family you want to grow, a cause you wish to serve.
- Connection gives you sightlines into how your everyday work (whether paid or unpaid) serves that calling by solving the problem at hand, growing the company’s bottom line, or reaching that goal.
- Contribution is an understanding of how this job, this brand, this paycheck contributes to the community you want to belong, the person you want to be, or the lifestyle you’d like to live.
- Control reflects how you are able to influence your connection to that calling in order to have some say in the assignment of projects, deadlines, colleagues, clients, or other use of your time; offer input into shared goals; and do work that contributes to your family or career trajectory and earnings.
Baby boomers, in particular, want to explore a purpose outside of themselves and find meaning in the final professional chapter of their lives. Baby boomers, not ready to put their hard-earned toolboxes on the shelf to gather dust, are seasoned and wise; they know that their formidable skills can be game-changing. When faced with more free time and longer lifespans than ever, this generation is looking for ways to create a second career—paid or unpaid—that focuses on giving back.
We don’t always expect or anticipate a change in what is limiting us, and often we are surprised by its effect. Typically, these changes happen as we move through certain stages, like becoming a parent or nearing retirement. But a recalibration of what consonance means to you can just as easily occur after a sudden diagnosis or a major world news story. If, at different points in your life, your needs change, so then must the values you place on calling, connection, contribution, and control.
Each of us will have different limits, whether external or internal, that hold us back and keep us from discovering our true path to a satisfying career and home life. You must decide what value you place on calling, connection, contribution, and control—and what personal adjustments are required so you can achieve the distinct combination that makes you limitless.
Determining what is right for you comes down to deciding one thing: What allows what you do to match who you are? Taking this introspective approach may mean asking some hard questions of yourself before you can take action and make the necessary changes.
- What does success look like for you, both now and in the future?
- How do you want your work to define your life or support your lifestyle?
- What does your paid work allow you to do outside of working hours?
- Are the values that attract you to your work the same values that you live at home?
- Asking these questions will allow you to be honest with yourself about what each of the elements of calling, connection, contribution, and control mean to you.
- What needs to change so you can live the life you truly want for yourself?
To figure that out, I’ve created a short quiz that will build a framework for you to follow to find and conquer your own version of consonance, determining how much calling, connection, contribution, and control you have and you want so that the “what you do” matches the “who you are.”
Here’s the good news: there are no wrong answers. The only right answer is the right answer for you. And the only one who gets a vote in figuring that out is — you guessed it — also you.