“Generation Drift”: how so many millennials and Gen Zs became so unsure about what they want from life

“Generation Drift”: how so many millennials and Gen Zs became so unsure about what they want from life

In his book Generation Drift, author Josh Roberts asks: why have millennials and Gen Z broken up with the idea of a “dream job”?

When we’re young, the adults in our life make a big deal of asking us what we want to be when we grow up. Of course, no one is holding a five-year-old to their promise of becoming an astronaut, but as we get older, we’re expected to have not only a sensible but also an appropriately impressive answer to that question.

But here’s the thing: many of us, despite being years into successful, lucrative or stable careers, still have literally no idea.

We are, as author Josh Roberts terms it, up “career creek”. Despite having swallowed the line that “the world is our oyster” and acknowledging the privilege we hold that we can value work fulfilment so highly, we don’t know what we want to do with our lives.

It’s such a widespread notion that Roberts coined the phrase “Generation Drift” to describe the swathes of millennials and Gen Zs meandering, coasting and maybe even stumbling their way through life as a working adult.

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Being a “drifter”, he says, is about not knowing exactly what you want from your career, not having a clear idea of what success means and feeling like you’ve consistently made terrible career choices. And by that definition, it’s likely more of us are part of Generation Drift than we think.

So why do so many of us find ourselves in the same boat?

Generation Drift is defined by a sense of purposeful directionlessness: knowing that you want something, but just not exactly what that thing is. Many of us feel trapped by being “successful” at something we don’t enjoy, lured by meaningless yet fancy job titles and financial security.

According to Roberts, the pathway to living a “good” life used to seem simple. “All we had to do was turn up at school, go to our lessons and do our revision,” he writes. “ If we did that then we’d get good exam results. And if we got those we’d get our dream job at a brilliant company, buy a nice house with a pretty garden and live happily ever after.

“The problem was very few of us had any idea what that ‘dream job’ might be. So instead most of us just took the first one we got offered.”

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The generational pivot from settling to chasing satisfaction hasn’t come without criticism from older age groups who call us narcissistic, entitled and workshy for not being thrilled by the prospect of dedicating 50+ years of our lives to thankless labour. To some, we should just be grateful to even have a job in the first place and value hard work over personal satisfaction every time.

“If someone offered you a gig, you took it and tried to get on with it,” Roberts writes. “‘Stick with it for at least two years,” our parents told us. “You don’t want people to think you’re flaky.”

However, statistics from the past two years indicate that we perhaps are a bit flaky. Millennials are 50% more bored at work and over 300% more likely to change jobs.

Research conducted by Glassdoor revealed that 30% of women surveyed said they had changed jobs since the start of the pandemic, and a study by software provider CIPHR also found that one in three people have retrained for a new career or changed the industry they work in in the last 18 months.

Being part of "Generation Drift" means knowing we want to achieve something, but not being sure what
Being part of "Generation Drift" means knowing we want to achieve something, but not being sure what

But despite these huge numbers, there is still a lot of understandable hesitancy to make such dramatic changes at a time where our health – mental, financial and physical – feels under very real threat.

Roberts describes when he first considered changing career paths. “Hadn’t I left it too late? Hadn’t people made up their minds by 28? Wasn’t switching lanes completely impossible?” he shares.

For Generation Drift, it seems the dream job no longer exists. The world of work doesn’t appear to be working for us. We still have ideals and hopes and goals, we’re just uncertain of how and if we will reach them.

And, as Roberts himself asks, what exactly is so wrong with that?

Generation Drift by Josh Roberts published by Yellow Kite Books is out now.

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