This column first appeared in the print and digital editions of the Boulder Daily Camera on January 27, 2016.
Erik Nelson, a former VP with a large financial service company, is on the hunt for meaningful work.
He recently moved from Texas to Colorado to find a job in the nonprofit sector, hoping to discover a career with more than monetary benefits.
But after a few months, his search became a maze. He recently asked me, "Honestly, can work be anything other than mundane, routine, and pressure packed?" In other words, isn't there more to life that working a 9-5 — and then escaping to the mountains for the weekend?
Like the 19th century gold rush, Erik is one of thousands of people flocking to Colorado. As the economic center of the United States shifts westward, cities like Boulder are brimming with new faces — especially millennials. We seem to be following Henry David Thoreau's prophetic words, "Eastward I go only by force, but westward I go free. This is the prevailing tendency of my countrymen."
But why come to a city like Boulder? Why did Colorado gain over 100,000 residents last year? Is it our snow-kissed slopes? Our booming craft brewing industry? Dreams of trading the congestion of New York for a leisurely bike ride to work in the Colorado sunshine?
Certainly those perks play a role. But I have a thesis: what we're really longing for is meaningful work. And for most, that search is riddled with anxiety.
In generations past, many took jobs merely as a means to a paycheck. Sign on with a large company, stay for 30 years, and find fulfillment on the weekend. But the new norm is to find a job with a social mission.
For example, JJ Oslund of Boulder left his job in human resources at Target to join the Global Accelerator Network, a network of short-term schools for entrepreneurs, because "I was in a system where I couldn't effect change. I knew I wanted my work to make an impact."
The American historian and broadcaster Studs Turkel described this longing well: "Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday-through-Friday sort of dying."
If work is just a dollars-for-hours swap, then we're spending nearly 100,000 hours of our lives like Sisyphus — pushing a rock up hill only to see it roll down again. It's no wonder 75 percent of young adults want to live a more meaningful life.
The trouble is, most aren't finding what they're looking for. The average job tenure for millennials is a staggeringly short 16 months. For the rest of the market, it's only 4.6 years. The search for meaning in work is elusive; as soon as one opportunity knocks, thoughts creep in of a better job around the corner.
Tech entrepreneurs often have the toughest time finding satisfaction in their work. A recent survey by TINYpulse, a specialist in monitoring employee satisfaction, found only 19 percent of tech employees say they are happy in their jobs, and only 17 percent feel valued in their work.
Tensions with work are often hardest for women with children. Jesse Minassian, a mother of two and writer living in Aurora, says, "I love what I do. Yet working from home while home-schooling my kids makes it hard. Between working, housekeeping, mothering, teaching and being a wife, I never feel a sense of being 'finished' with my responsibilities."
At Denver Institute for Faith & Work, these are the kinds of tensions we explore. Tensions between faith and work, aimlessness and purpose, family and career, what is and what should be.
Denver founder and city builder John Evans (1814-1897), whose efforts to connect the Denver Pacific railway to Cheyenne saved the metro area from obscurity, once said, "It is the imperative of the Almighty that we shall do all the good we can." For Evans, his work in medicine, business and higher education was driven by a deeper meaning more than mere personal success.
Evans didn't just have a career. He had a vocation. A person choosing a career balances financial and psychological benefits with professional advancement. But someone with a vocation obeys a summons, even if it leads to obscurity or suffering. The good of others trumps personal comfort.
Tensions in our work will remain. But hope for the masses moving West for meaningful work won't be found in self-actualization but instead in the freedom of self-forgetfulness.