Gladys, Starbucks, and Steve: Finding Calling in the Unemployment Generation

Today’s guest post comes from Bonnie Kristian, one of an excellent class of students from Bethel Seminary who recently studied the intersection between faith, vocation and work.

There’s a meme I enjoy called “Old Economy Steve.” It’s a high school photo of a kid from the 70s with a zitty face and a future marked by an affordable college education, a fulfilling job, and a manageable mortgage. Steve has been dubbed the official meme of embittered Millenials, expressing young people’s frustrations with a bad economy and an oft oblivious older generation.

While our parents lived lives Old Economy Steve would recognize, the dreams people my age have always been encouraged to pursue are, for many of us, a thing of the past. But still, we wonder:

What do we want to be when we grow up?

What should we do with our lives?

What’s our calling?

Answering this question is a lot more difficult than many of us expected it to be. I’ve been blessed to be employed full-time in the field of my choice since I finished college—but my career has been the exception of my generation, not the rule.

On a macro level, the picture is grim: The youth unemployment rate is officially 16%—double the national average—but when you count those who have given up on finding work altogether, that figure jumps to nearly a quarter. Add underemployment to joblessness, and 53% of American youth are affected. For those who are employed, it’s no longer possible to pay our way through college in four years with part-time work; and the median cost of a house has jumped from 3.5 years’ worth of median income to 7.9 years’ worth of median income since 1970. I’ve had the luxury of thinking about my calling in life—now for class credit in seminary!—but few of my friends can say the same.

So what does it look like to discern one’s calling when the calling you’re most concerned with is coming from the hiring manager at the local Starbucks?

Is there room for vocation-seeking when you’ve got a student loan bills which promise to last ‘til it’s time for your own kids to go to college?

Can you, as educator Parker Palmer encourages, “let your life speak” when all life seems to be saying is, “Get a job and move out of the basement”?

I don’t have any easy answers, but I do have two thoughts:

1. Don’t panic. It’s early days yet, and a rocky beginning of being a grown-up isn’t necessarily the prelude to a meaningless life. When I was in middle school, I read and reread a biography of Gladys Aylward, an early 20th Century British missionary to China. She remains one of my heroes, and her story is relevant here.

Gladys was born to a poor family in the UK in 1902, and she started working as a maid at just 14 (think Daisy of Downton Abbey). Gladys wanted to become a missionary, but her application was rejected when she was 26 on the grounds that she was too old to learn a new language. Undaunted, she saved up her own money and got herself to China alone, at the age of 30, traveling through a warzone. Once in China, she was instrumental in prison reforms, helped end the practice of foot-binding, and saved more than 100 orphans in WW2. Gladys worked 16 years in sucky jobs—more than half her life at that point—before she got to fulfill her calling from God in China. Getting a slow start doesn’t mean you won’t get started at all.

2. Don’t despair. The economy may continue to suck; and most people my age may never get a job they love; and we may well be a generation which never really gets to retire—but that doesn’t mean the end of calling: “Jobs become vocations and begin to matter when we connect what we do to God’s Kingdom vision for this world…. We have to believe that the mundane matters to God, and the way to make the mundane matter is to baptize what we do in the Kingdom vision of Jesus.”

To paraphrase Psalm 139’s praise to God, “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I work at Starbuck until I’m 80, if I find a dream career which fits me like a glove, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”

Bonnie Kristian is a student at Bethel Seminary currently working on her first book project. Read more of her work at www.bonniekristian.com.


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