I don’t really know anyone who would say they are happy. It’s not exactly small talk-appropriate conversation to make: asking existential questions about people’s happiness, but it feels like something you can read into based on real, regular conversations. It’s just a general sense of unease, the feeling that they expected more from life than what they’re getting. Not that anyone I know expects to be handed things. I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who have worked their asses off to get to where they are. They may be making money, or crossing bucket list items off, but no one seems truly settled, genuinely happy.
This is the general energy of my friends and acquaintances of a certain age. They all seem to have an okay time of life- all have jobs, some “better” than others, they all have homes, are dating or have partners, enjoy activities outside of work. But when asked how they are, they consistently respond with a sad and pained lack of enthusiasm. They are eating, they have fun sometimes, but life is just… meh.
I always thought we would all have our lives together to a greater extent by this point, but then again, when you think about the examples of this age group we saw growing up, it’s almost as though they were warning us. I mean, the characters on Friends were all facing some kind of crises early in the series as well- their lives slowly knitting together personal successes and failures until they reached a point of general success, or happiness, or whatever Ross and Rachel had. Clearly, if your twenties were based on this show, no one expected you to have your life together.
These skinny Gen X-ers may not be the best models of societal expectations for a young millennial like myself, but it does hold some weight to know that at 26, Rachel was waiting tables in a coffee shop, Monica got fired, and Joey could barely book an audition, let alone a well-paying acting job.
That being said though, life in 2019 is very different from 1996, when the last millennials were being popped out.
At 26, I have just gotten my bachelor’s degree, leaving me significantly behind a large number of my peers, I have no full time job, and have recently moved in with my parents. This would all seem well and good at 22, but at 26 I feel like I am falling behind.
That’s not to say, however, that my peers are in positions that are any less transitional. Some are in med school or grad school, an exhausting endeavour that won’t be ending any time soon, but at least have forward motion. Some are searching for jobs that will further their career, instead, working at one or a number of jobs that pay the bills but do little in terms of satisfaction. The scariest group, to me, are those that have settled into dream jobs, or close to them- jobs in their field that they are good at, and feeling, alarmingly, similarly dissatisfied. This is where I see another issue begin to come into focus: millennial burnout.
If you haven’t read Anne Helen Peterson’s piece on burnout, do yourself a huge favour and sit down with it. She discusses how we, as a culture, as a generation (millennials, in this case) are facing burnout in a way that is unprecedented. I myself, have definitely been feeling the burnout, having worked pretty much non-stop over the last three years at multiple jobs as well as school. I find myself even more burnt out when I’m engaging in jobs or activities that I’m passionate about, because I put so much time and energy into them that I feel as though I can’t stop.
I am in absolutely no way, an anomaly, which Peterson notes as well: the burnout lifestyle has become the millennial way of life. This is simply how it is done now. And maybe that is the reason for this dissatisfaction. The phrase “do something you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life” has become both a mantra and a cruel lie. People are constantly struggling to keep themselves afloat while fighting for the things they love- which now tend to be their careers themselves.
How do we end the cycle? How does one stop feeling as though they are constantly running on an empty tank?
In a society in which we are expected to have multiple hustles going at once, it is almost an expectation that we will postpone our personal lives in a way, in order to make room for professional success. But what does that do to our general sense of well-being? An example that Peterson offered in her piece of how burnout affects us, is that we have difficulty completing menial tasks because they are not linked to a work-related success, and we simply have no more gas in the tank for such work. This might explain why more millennials are going out to eat than ever. It also explains why I had been paying for a newspaper subscript that I never read, because I’d been putting off calling the subscription office.
I can’t say if more pressure is being put on millennials to succeed, and to be honest, I don’t think that there is. However, there is a kind of shift in consciousness to make our careers an integral part of our lives, rather than a job, and this may have something to do with the feeling that the hustle never ends. I’d be interested in learning the thoughts of others on this. Please let me know what you think!