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When Your Adult Child Wants to Find Meaningful Work

You may be nervous about the low pay and foreign travel, but there are a few ways to help lower the risks for your kid

By Jeffrey Jensen Arnett

This article is adapted from the new book, When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up? by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett and Elizabeth Fishel.

If you have a twentysomething child, you may find that he or she seeks “meaningful work.” The boomers invented the concept (they're the driving force behind encore careers), and now their children expect it as their birthright.

But meaningful work often comes with low pay, low job security and few of the perks associated with a corporate job. And taking on meaningful work abroad can sometimes be dangerous, as the sad, recent death in Egypt of Kenyon student Andrew Pochter demonstrated. Pochter was there teaching English and trying to make the world a better place.

(MORE: When Parents Go Too Far to Help Their Kids Land Jobs)

This mother of a 24-year-old college grad expresses the widely held ambivalence of many parents of the underemployed, reflecting on her daughter’s work life in the worthy, but underpaid, non-profit sector:

She patches together an “almost full-time” job status with part-time jobs. No benefits, which is one of my concerns — and also one of the realities of today’s workplace. She is finding creative ways to adjust her lifestyle to her part-time jobs’ income. Part of me is impressed, part of me is uneasy with the “fluid” nature of things, because it isn’t quite what the adult threshold was like for us 30-some years ago.

The Dream of Meaningful Work

This generation of twentysomethings, particularly the college-educated portion of it, holds on to dreams for work that will make a difference to them and to society.

Many want to find a job that’s an expression of their identity. They hope for a decent paycheck — a fat one would be fine, too — but most also want work that’s creative, uses their talents and helps others.

In a 2012 Clark University poll, 86 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 said it was important to them to have a career that does some good in the world.

(MORE: Career Advice to a Conflicted College Student)

The Lure of Community Service

In their search for good work, more young people than ever are looking for first jobs in community service programs like Teach for America, AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps. Graduates are signing up for these programs in record numbers, finding satisfaction in service while also gaining invaluable experience and fringe benefits.

Peace Corps volunteers become fluent in the language of their host country and gain helpful cross-cultural skills.

Research shows that AmeriCorps volunteers experience a wide range of benefits, from better analytical problem solving to enhanced information technology skills.

Teach for America volunteers not only get two years of fast-track training to become teachers but often use the organization’s excellent reputation and contact network as an entry ticket to a wide variety of careers afterward. And Teach for America covers the costs of a master's degree in education.

(MORE: Career Advice to My Daughter on Graduation Day)

How Parents Can Help

If you want to assist a child eager to find meaningful work domestically or abroad, be supportive, even if his or her career decision doesn’t jibe with your own.

Young people need to make their own choices launching their work lives as well as learn from their own on-the-job mistakes.

Your son or daughter may actually be opting for a type of job far different from yours by intention. In my study of how emerging adults make career choices, parents were deemed figures of work inspiration less often than you might expect. In response to the question, “Did your parents’ occupations influence your own choice of occupation?” emerging adults were about twice as likely to answer “no” as “yes.”

Some of the “no” responses were so insistent – “The last thing in the world I’d want to do” – that their vehemence suggested they believe their parents’ careers made them miserable and left them unfulfilled.

For many grown children, observing their parents’ work struggles provided an extra incentive to find jobs that are meaningful and enjoyable.

When Your Child Wants to Help Abroad

Increasingly, emerging adults are drawn to service opportunities outside the borders of the United States.


Pollster John Zogby calls the millennial generation the “First Globals,” international citizens whose “planet is their playing field.” His polling research shows that today’s emerging adults see their lives as public, interconnected and continent-spanning in ways that were unimagined before the Internet, cheap travel and surging study abroad programs.

For many of them, one part of their consciousness as citizens of the world is the desire to devote time to an international service organization. This experience serves the dual purpose of allowing them to express their desire to help others in need while also preparing them well for an international occupation someday. And, of course, there’s also the adventure.

Is there a role for parents in guiding these global explorations?

Absolutely. Parents can play a crucial role in preparing young people for a year or two abroad by encouraging them to learn all they can about the risks most relevant in their destination country.

There are many countries where young people will be safer, statistically, than they would be in most of the United States. This is true for every country in Europe, as well as Australia and New Zealand. In China, a popular destination for post-college grads to teach English for a year, crime rates are extremely low.

In other developing countries, risks are a much greater concern.

Most countries in Central and South America have crime rates that are relatively high, especially in urban areas. Young women can be especially at risk. In countries where the custom is that a woman is always accompanied by a man in public, a lone woman may be viewed as fair game for sexual harassment.

Then there is the possibility of a social upheaval or a sudden conflict, as just occured in Egypt, where student Andrew Pochter was killed.

In other countries, especially in Africa, disease is a greater threat than crime or harassment. Many sub-Saharan African countries have high rates of malaria and tuberculosis that are rarely or never seen in developed countries.

Young people may shrug off the risks, because they are so used to living a comfortable and protected life that they assume nothing bad will happen to them.

If your emerging adult seems casual about investigating and preparing for risks, you can — and should — do the research yourself and share it with your son or daughter: The crime rate in the capital city is X times the crime rate in your hometown; the most common diseases in the country you want to visit are as follows ...

You may be met with resistance, but at least you’ll know you’ve done what you could to help enhance awareness of the risks and increase protection and safety.

Finding the Elusive Balance

Although young people today are often scorned for their reputed selfishness, their zeal to serve others around the world is unprecedented and casts them in quite a different light.

Call them the Generous Generation, a group more likely than their parents or grandparents to see the problems of people in far-flung parts of the world as their problems too and endeavor to do something about them.

The wise parent is one who seeks the elusive ideal balance between nurturing, guiding and standing aside.

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Ph.D., is co-author of When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up? and coined the term "emerging adulthood." Arnett is a research professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University and executive director of the Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood. Read More
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