Wednesday, April 18, 2012

My kids want to love their jobs. Why is that a bad thing?

I have a lot of friends with important jobs. They’ve supported their families in fine fashion, and they’ve managed to continue to be the nicest people on the planet while doing it. I can’t help but be happy for them, and I’m doubly happy for them when their adult children follow them into lucrative careers. My kids are 20 and 23 now, so I’m seeing that happen more and more; their peers are forging lives of their own and funding them with careers in finance and medicine and information technology.

We’re all wired differently when it comes to our definitions of success; even within the same family, it’s easy to see wide variations in the factors that constitute a person’s having “made it” in life. I was raised to value and utilize my own talents, but I was also brought up knowing I’d someday have to feed myself. I chose journalism, a profession I knew would not make me wealthy – but as clichéd as it sounds, I knew having to eat ramen noodles wouldn’t be a huge deal if I could be paid something, anything, to tell stories.

And then I had kids, and then I became a single mom. And suddenly, being able to afford something other than ramen became a priority. I needed to make more money relatively quickly, so I didn't have time to advance, as several of my friends have, to editorial capacities in the newsroom. I decided to go a different route, parlaying my skill set into other communications positions. And that was OK.

But my kids want more than "OK." My generation seems to have brought up our children with these expectations – the ones that have allowed them to promise themselves, from early ages, “When I work full-time, I’ll be doing something I absolutely love and would die for.” Contrast that with the response I was always given when I’d grouse to my dad about work: “Stop complaining. They call it work for a reason.”

My kids expect to be paid to do something that doesn’t feel like a job. And while I don’t know how things will work out, I’m proud that as of right now, they’re not willing to accept any less.

Don’t get me wrong: My kids are far from lazy. Scott is about to graduate from college with two majors; Caroline will complete what essentially is a five-year major in four years. Both are studying things they enjoy, but their coursework has been rigorous and their schedules have been demanding.

Still, though, they keep their eyes on the prize: “When I’m done, I’ll be able to do something that makes me happy.” Caroline wants to impart her love of music to the students she’ll teach. Scott wants to make music and feed people who need to be fed. And it’s all coming together for both of them.

Last night, I attended a CD-release party for my son’s rap group. His sister sings with the group when she’s able, so I was able to watch my kids perform together. I saw them exhibit their pride in one another, and I witnessed the genuine joy they felt about what they were doing. I remember feeling that once or twice when I was young, but life quickly became serious and it didn’t last.

“I don’t want to sit behind a desk for the rest of my life,” my son says. And I respond, “Then don’t.” And I mean it. Who really grows up saying, “I can’t wait to sit behind a desk?” But for many of us, that becomes the logical choice. In my case, I’m grateful for the options that have come my way over the years, as they've helped to finance the educations that may allow my children to make different choices.

Do I think my kids are unrealistic in their expectations? Not at all. Am I taken aback that they aren’t willing to be unhappy? Yes, a little. And what does that say about us as a society? That if we’re unwilling to work at something we dislike, that’s somehow indulgent and wrong?

I watch commercials for such organizations as Big Brothers/Big Sisters and I think, “How nice that people volunteer for things like that.” My daughter didn’t think “how nice” – she became a big sister. My son sees videos of starving children in Somalia and, unlike me, he doesn’t think, “Why can’t someone fix that?” He wants to be the person to make it happen.

“Teachers don’t make any money,” some well-meaning friends say of my daughter’s career path. Of my son’s, they say, “How in the world will he support himself?”

All I can say is: I know things will work out, and I know my kids will be successful – maybe not in the way others define monetary success, but by their own definitions. And how fortunate they are to already understand that their own definitions are the most important ones of all – and, truly, the only ones that should ever actually matter.

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