the why of collegeThe WHY of college is in designing a meaningful work life.

Greetings from Richmond, Virginia. My wife and I are here for our daughter’s college orientation.

So much has changed in the 40-years-to-the-month that have elapsed since my college orientation took place. Back then, such an event was essentially a two-and-a-half-day kegger. Stu Katz, my best friend and college roommate, and I cannot recall much from that experience, other than that we passed a lot of unstructured time hanging out with other first-time students who, like us, were starting their college lives.

the why of collegeWe do recall at least one official business item: Stu and I were issued our college photo IDs. But we cannot recall much else that happened.

Oh, we both had then a lot more hair then than we do now. (Sigh.)

By contrast, my daughter’s just concluded college orientation in Richmond was content-packed and intense, but also positively meaningful. While focusing on all-important class schedules and food services plan selections, she also discovered that her home for the next four years will help drive her discovery of a meaningful work life.

Back in the day as college students, the narratives that we dreamed up for ourselves were guided by achieving a particular outcome, such as:

WHAT career do I want to pursue?

WHICH degree and course tracks will get me there?

HOW much income do I expect to earn? 

WHERE do I see my self being when I’m 40 years old?

What was glaringly absent from our narratives was WHY:

WHY am I here?

WHY do I want to pursue a particular career track?

WHY do I want to make positive impacts on the world, on people and communities?


WHY me? WHY do I think that I can be an agent for positive change?

If my wife’s and my observations of the incoming class of 2023 are any indication, then it is apparent that their time and experiences will be driven by WHY.

Forty years ago, one’s pursuit of a bachelor’s degree was driven by economic prerequisites. Without a bachelor’s degree, and later without a master’s degree, we knew that we could be deprived of plum work assignments.

the why of collegeYet despite our not asking WHY, or knowing to ask WHY, we still found success ascending corporate ladders. But often, we filled our purpose cavities by consumption of new cars, luxury homes, expensive vacations, weekly dining out, and storage facilities full of our stuff. As we approached the 40-years-of-age-mark, the magical milestone when most people reach their career pinnacle, we assumed great responsibility for driving profits and managing people. And we consumed, because consumerism was our understanding of what the American Dream happened to be. We celebrated each promotion, each milestone with more stuff. And we sank deeper into debt, sometimes falling into despair.

Stuff didn’t keep us happy. And neither did the work we performed that maybe paid well, but often was devoid of purpose. As The Gallop Organization’s tracking study finds, two-thirds of people in the American workforce are in some way doing meaningless work.*

The Plurals—or as some call them, Generation Z—are on a journey to ask WHY. And the timing of their WHY discoveries could not be more timely or fortuitous. The generational cohort that is currently in college, and entering the work world in droves, will be tasked with mitigating existential crises: climate change, social and economic injustice, cultural tribalism, and their relationship to financial debt…and acquired stuff.

Most important, today’s college arrivals are leading a revolution of work—redefining what work is, but also what purpose it fulfills. What I expect that they will codify, for all of us, is the idea that work may be inspired most by an individual’s quest for meaningful work. In contrast to the Gen Xers and Late Boomers in the workforce who favored full-time work above all other options, Millennials and now Plurals/Gen Zers will likely seek more work opportunity as independent contractors or as entrepreneurs, because doing so will allow them to ensure that their purpose in life and work remains on track. Even those in the cohort that choose to work as full-time employees may seek to take on part-time gig roles, and will do so by choice rather than necessity.

Plurals/Gen Zers are redefining the American Dream away from the consumerism sought by my generation to a pursuit of financial independence and meaningful work purpose. 

By challenging students like my daughter to discover WHY, we are shifting the experience of work away from the meaningless to work that is profound, protects the planet, empowers people and communities, and is fun to do—meaningful work.

And when that happens, our best days lie ahead.

Catch up on past episodes of The Tightrope with Dan Smolen Podcast. Find us on Apple PodcastStitcher, on our website, or wherever you get your podcasts.

DAN SMOLEN is founder of The Dan Smolen Experience. He is also the executive producer and host of The Tightrope with Dan Smolen podcast. Listen and subscribe to us by keywording “The Tightrope with Dan Smolen” on Apple Podcasts. Also, please rate us and offer suggestions for future guests and topics.

*Gallup Organization tracking study of the American Workforce (Fall 2018).

Image credits: VCU students,; College ID, Dan Smolen; 91 365, Kristyna Dankova/Flickr.