A Millennial’s Definition of Work in 15 Words

A millennial’s reflections on work based on answers to a keynote industry speech on leadership. This topic is in direct response to a CEO’s question to 4 millennials that she has worked with in her 10+ years of serving and working with young people.

She sent a one-page sheet of questions to get quotes (mostly in 15 words or less). You can find my overview answers here. These ideas are just one individual’s perspective and is not meant to speak for the “millennial” generation, if such a category exists.

Your definition of work (in 15 words of less)

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What does work mean to you?

Work as a concept

My first response to defining work was that I don’t think about “work”. I was tempted to write “work is a concept”, but without context, it would just sound like a snide remark.

Still, work really is just a concept, a label, an idea, often something that we just do even though we’re not sure what we’re doing. Work is taken for granted as a pre-requisite for life. I am backtracking to invite everyone’s input on what this word means to them.

Image courtesy of Giphy
Most people think it’s this. –Image courtesy of Giphy

No, I don’t want to talk about this from the work-life balance perspective.

Work as necessity

One might argue that work is a necessity, and it is intellectual masturbation to consider otherwise. To have time to ponder whether to work at all is a privilege given that 3 billion people (almost 1/2 the world’s population) live with less than US$3.10/day. But for those of us with this privilege, I want to investigate what work is because this concept and prevalent practice affects everyone who does or doesn’t, can and cannot work.

Work is a necessity because we need money to survive. We need money for food, water, shelter, clothing, transportation, and (for many) an education.

Image from Imgur
Self-sufficiency without money is a paradox to an urbanite — Image from Imgur

When faced with the reality of teaching ourselves how to make a fire, clean ourselves without running water, and farm, it’s better to learn how to use spreadsheets, social media tools, and management theory. With all its amenities of the most advanced technology age, we just need to be a good cog in the wheel to belong. Even Neo had a tough time dealing with the bland gruel after he unplugged from The Matrix.

You’re probably thinking that I’ve not answered the original question: why make work a concept? Hang in there.

The summary of the above is that for most of us, paid work that gets us our basic necessities is easier than teaching ourselves self-sufficiency.

The work you choose

Since work is a foregone conclusion, it’s more practical to ask: what type of work do I want? That basically translates to ‘What type of job do I want?’

A subtle substitution. Does work = job?

not sure if i hate my job or just hate working
Image found on Work Memes

A job is one type of work: paid work. Other things can feel like work, though, such as chores, volunteering, or honestly anything that requires effort and feels like work.

So is work the job that you have or the stuff that feels like work (i.e. a drag)? Work is now the concept we are trying to define.

If work is just the job, then the ‘easy’ thing to do is to find a job you like. Only, it seems that for a millennial, no job seems to pay enough and the ones we like most usually pay the least. So it seems the cards are stacked against us to make a living doing what we love.

So now, every millennial with enough privilege to have time to think has the existential crisis to figure out that balance between “working on what you love” and “working to pay the bills”.

Work isn’t just limited to paid work. We don’t just put effort into paid things. We put effort into the things we care about: the volunteer hours put into an event, designing for a project, translating work, building apps. It may not feel like work, but you put in time and effort.

Effort is something we can offer and we can withhold – irrespective of pay. Work as a category then, had to include both the things we do paid and unpaid. Work is just everything we put effort into. Vice versa, we give our time to our paid work, even if we don’t put in effort.

Work to me is the effort and time we put into something, paid or unpaid, liked or disliked.

Personal millennial ramblings on work

However, since the meaning of work (to me) is expanded, that also means the possibilities and solutions are expanded. So, in other words, defining work still didn’t answer the question of how to make it meaningful, or how to make our days happier.

I don't want to make a living. I want to live. - Oscar Wilde

Everyone has the two same things to offer: time and effort. Time is a resource. Effort is dependent on our attitude.

I spend time and effort on the things that 1) matter to me and 2) I need to do to survive. Money is convenient for survival, but it’s only one means. Sleep, food, water, and some reason to live is how I survive day to day. I’ve gotten food for no money (WOOFing) and I quite like that lifestyle. I’ve also had no reason to live while earning money and being able to buy all the material things my body needs. The idea of purpose needs to be tabled for another post, but in the meantime, I’ll just focus on the item that takes up most of our day: work.

Work, in the societal sense of gainful employment, is one of the things I do. By stating that, work is no longer a foregone conclusion.

My work helps me get the things I need, and then want, in life. By articulating the obvious, I identify the thing it helps me do.

However, it is not the only way to get the things I need. Then, I think about other ways I can achieve the same thing. If, for example, it helps me purchase groceries, can I produce my own food? Would I want to? In my case, I like farming, so I would. It suddenly makes money a little less necessary.

All work requires time and effort. Even if, say, I were to work less and farm more because I like it, farming won’t take any less effort. Stating this helps me own up to my decisions rather than just think that a change in status will instantly make things seem easier or better.

Work is always a function of gain vs pain. As rational human beings, when the gains from work become lower than the pain, we’ll stop. For most people, no matter how much they hate their job, they can’t figure out how to get food on the table otherwise. There is nothing shameful about sticking out something because it is the best possible option right now.

What work means to me is up to me to choose and change. The important thing to do is to know why you chose what you are doing, and especially why you are choosing to stick something out. Self-awareness and mindfulness don’t take away the pain, but they make it easier to handle.

One last point. Humans want to be happy (not dealing with outliers who are determined to be miserable here). As a millennial, I haven’t experienced the multiple wars my grandparents had to go through. For that generation perhaps peace and comfort is happiness. Growing up, I’ve taken peace and comfort for granted, so my expectation of happiness is different. I want to be happy, but I spend a lot of time at work to make a living. Wouldn’t it be more efficient if I could merge work and happiness? Sure. So it’s my job to figure out that fit, not my position’s responsibility to fulfill my needs.

My work is not responsible for my happiness. I am.


This post was opart of a series of answers on my thoughts as a millennial on work, success, and leadership.

Athena Lam

A content marketing strategist and consultant. Passionate about storytelling for great teams and products. Co-founder of Business 3.0 (https://b3p0.org), LGBTQGlassdoor.com. Personal blog at https://thecupandtheroad.com.

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