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Souls at Work

By Tom Beaudoin

The author of "Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Gen X," talks about the importance of pluralism, pop culture, and generation-sensitive mentors.

Those who want to understand twentysomethings must take our pop culture seriously.

Corporate America has a lot to learn before it can tap into the full potential of young professionals. I have become convinced of this through my experience as a young professional--but not in the corporate world. My working world is ministry.

I work for churches that are trying to figure out how to reach us, the post-Baby Boomer professionals who are now in our 20s and 30s. Through my work, I have seen churches learn a great deal from the people they are trying to reach. First and foremost, churches are learning to accept the priority systems that young people use to make sense of an increasingly complicated world. A church that learns this lesson creates room for young people to be themselves and to see the congruencies between what they need and what the church has to offer.

I think the same lesson applies to businesses. By making an effort to understand young workers' priorities, companies can come to understand the souls behind their work.

Pluralism is a virtue
A lot of people think that we are a generation without values, raised on a steady diet of video games, rock idols, and movies. They think we are incapable of judging right from wrong. It is true that many of us can't detail the origins of the moral guidelines we live by. For many people, values come from a highly individual and private spiritual outlook.

Yet, out of our varied backgrounds, this generation has developed one common priority: a belief that difference is something to be protected and treasured. We have a fundamental moral commitment to the value of pluralism, which gives rise to a strong ethic of tolerance. Our generation is at the forefront of accepting this country's ever-increasing ethnic and cultural diversity, and we expect everyone else to make an honest effort to catch up. We have grown up surrounded by real differences--sexual, racial, religious--and struggled to accept those differences without prejudice. We will not respect an organization that thrives on excluding others or making us conform.

Popular culture is important
Those who want to understand twentysomethings must take our pop culture seriously. I would go so far as to say that, in a way, we take pop culture religiously, as a major system of meaning in our lives. From moment to moment, we can be nearly as serious about Thursday-night TV, our favorite hip-hop artist, or a particular CD as we are about a job. So what can the corporate world learn from our deep immersion in pop culture? Amid all its ephemerality, popular culture has taken on a spiritual dimension. It is part of what is most important to us, our common language. Our daily lives are populated with symbols from our popular culture, and we are more likely to follow leaders who speak this language or at least understand its importance.

Community inspires loyalty
Our generation grew up watching politicians fall, marriages falter, and the American Dream retreat. We have learned to be suspicious of institutions, from family to religion to work, and we are particularly suspicious of any institution, whether a company, a church, or a relationship, that would try to single-handedly run our lives. In order to trust an organization, we must feel that our work, opinions, and ideas matter--that we are a part of something and not simply subject to someone else's goals. We are searching for authentic community, and once we feel like a part of something worthwhile, we are capable of abiding loyalty. In this age, companies must be willing to earn employees' allegiance by treating employees like partners.

Humility is the center of all authority
Many young professionals I encounter do not find their work lives meaningful. They sense a gap between their "job" and their "vocation." While our parents or grandparents may have had the same experience, this lack of meaningful work seems to matter more to our generation. Overbearing, overconfident managers who pretend that work is the be-all and end-all are more likely than ever to be met with a dismissive "whatever." I suspect that our managers can learn from the ministries that I have seen succeed with our generation; leaders in these ministries are consistently described as frank, authentic, real, open, and humble.

Generation-sensitive mentors needed
We are a generation often alienated from our families, a generation that has experienced the collapse of cultural heroes. We need business leaders to be spiritual mentors who will try to understand us and shepherd us through everything that goes along with making it in business--and making it in life.

The best employees in the world of business, like the most faith-filled adults in the world of ministry, are those who feel satisfied in many different areas of their life. Economic satisfaction is never completely separate from spiritual happiness. We need our employers to share their passion for the job with us and to help us find satisfying work that will make a difference in life outside work. Many young workers are looking to combine a meaningful life with a meaningful job. Employers just need to remember that not everyone defines "meaningful" the same way.

Tom Beaudoin, 30, is the author of Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (Jossey-Bass, 1998). Some of the ideas in this article first appeared in the April 1999 issue of U.S. Catholic magazine.

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