Working in the Complaints Department

Last week I went to a comedy show in Old City where the comedians and most of the audience were in their 20s, perhaps some in their early thirties.  One comedian, riffing on the strange habits of co-workers, began his set up with this question to the audience: “How many of you don’t like your jobs?”

Guess what? There were about 3 people, including myself and my friend (a law professor) who indicated we were happy with our work.  I imagine this crowd of Millennials isn’t exactly a random sample; but with all these dissatisfied employees, needless to say there were some good implications for MY job as a career counselor.  Clearly there will be a demand for the kind of service I provide from the upcoming generation.

And so I began to wonder, what was going on?  Was this about the economy and the lack of opportunity for 20-somethings?  Was this about the contagion of emotions, so if you work in a place with a negative atmosphere or are surrounded by friends with discontented attitudes you too may adopt the negative mood? Is it just plain cooler to complain?

I admit I don’t yet have an answer to the questions posed.  I could see that there may be some positive value in being collectively disgruntled, a strength in feeling that if things aren’t “right” at least you can commiserate.*  But my reaction is to consider the opposite approach: that finding what you like in work gives you the energy to address problems or make changes and a sense of purpose and satisfaction.   For example, there I was on my time off, finding the opportunity to think a little more deeply about my work while listening to the audience laugh at the pitfalls of a comedian with a coworker who blamed the office printer for the flatulent noises coming from his cubicle.

Few individuals find their work life perfect, but each can make the choice of focusing on what they do enjoy.  Like today’s Millennials, I graduated from college into a recession, and along with many other young people landed two part time jobs doing entry level work that was not very intellectually engaging.  Even so, I found that I enjoyed a feeling of professionalism, because I knew the employers I worked for needed my efforts, I liked helping people, getting recognition for my work, and organizing and implementing my own projects.  Eventually I chose my profession, returning to school for a graduate degree in counseling based on the insights I gained from my administrative positions.

You can find your work in the “complaints department,” perceiving your experience as bad if there are elements you don’t like, but even a job with clear limitations – one that is frustrating or “dead end” – can give you something positive in the future including an ability to face challenges, know yourself better, and at the very least make a memorable joke.

* There is a fair amount of information out there about how negativity affects the workplace. See this article on complaining in the workplace and note Wharton Professor Sigal Barsade’s work.  (Also see:

Trophy Kids Do Well By Doing Good: The Millennial Generation and Public Interest Careers

By Kelly Cleary

Most college students today are probably well aware that they have often been labeled by educators, market researchers, and prospective employers as Millennials, Generation Y or the Next Me Generation.  Older generations comparing themselves to the next crop of young adults is nothing new, but never before has a generation (in this case, those born between the early 1980’s through the early 2000’s) been scrutinized so closely as technology has made it easier to track the behavior of large numbers of people while our consumer culture has provided the motivation for marketers to gather as much information as possible about this group of young people and their purchasing power.

Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change.

As a student affairs professional, I’ve sat through many conference presentations that introduce educators to this generation of students who grew up receiving trophies, regardless of the final score; a generation of students who have been connected and online ever since they can remember, not thinking twice about posting photos and very personal updates about themselves on a myriad of social networking sites; a generation of students who have been pushed to achieve and believe they are special. The Pew Research Center’s 2010 report, The Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change , offers a fascinating and, I think, very positive portrait of this “self-expressive, liberal, upbeat” generation of young people who are “receptive to new ideas and ways of living.”

One of my favorite Millennial monikers is the “Next Civic Generation” referenced by Winograd and Hais, co-authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics, which proposes that the Millennials are the most civic minded generation since the 1930s and 1940s. According to Michael Brown, co-founder and CEO of City Year, “Community service is part of their DNA. It’s part of this generation to care about something larger than themselves.” (USA Today, 4/2009)

Penn students engaging locally and globally

As a career counselor at Penn, I am often humbled and inspired by the enthusiasm and commitment of so many students and alumni who work with various community service and public interest initiatives in West Philadelphia, across the nation, and around the globe. Many Penn students intern or volunteer for nonprofits and many go on to create nonprofits or to support public interest initiatives as part of their private sector careers. Clearly our students know that pursuing an internship with a nonprofit organization is one of the best ways to learn about public interest careers, build their skill set, and figure out what specific career path they eventually want to pursue.

Fortunately for Penn students who identify with the “Civic Generation” label, there are many ways for them to connect with related volunteer and internship opportunities and to talk with alumni who work in the field. Our Career Resources by Field page includes resources and tips from alumni for students interested in nonprofits, policy, international development, and government careers. And Idealist’s Guide to Nonprofit Careers for First-time Job Seekers is also a wonderful primer.

If you are interested in learn about what a nonprofit internship might involve, read the Civic House Associate Coalition’s summer internship blog. The contributors are Penn students who have received funding through Civic House programs for internships affiliated with the Penn community and beyond. I’m sure you’ll find Ankit, Estee, Allyson, Haley, and Shri’s observations, reflections, and musings interesting, insightful, and even entertaining. I loved reading about Ankit’s students Pradoop and the two Poojas.