Many months ago, B.C (before COVID, as I like to say), I, like so many of us, always had my heart set on the milestones; the ones that have been entrenched into us from day one. Milestones we were taught we must reach in order to succeed at life. Starting with GCSEs then moving swiftly on to A levels, university degrees, followed by a good job. Let me rephrase that; followed by your first ‘proper job’. Here’s how I finally pushed the career woman off her ladder, and because of it, she’s never been happier.
These jobs usually allow you to develop practical skills and gain experience to begin this initial part of your career. But somewhere down the line, a lot of us start to feel helpless because it turns out, the job isn’t really what we dreamt we would be doing. The chances are you feel undervalued, underrepresented or misplaced. Overcome with restlessness and a fast-approaching quarter-life crisis, you wonder how following all the how-to steps have left you feeling lost.
We are all undoubtedly products of our environment and our generation is told that our careers represent who we are. To live the London lifestyle is to become a part of an all-encompassing, infinite optical illusion with new patterns emerging and blending into each other every second of the day. You become absorbed—and you must keep up. The competition is fierce, now more than ever, and it is everywhere. It’s invigorating, which is probably why we are so drawn to it. Queue the universally-dreaded, predictable pre-drinks question ‘So what is it you do?’.
This kind of competition has its downsides as you can certainly be made to feel inadequate if you are not ‘keeping up’. London doesn’t care how far you’ve come because it wants you to keep going and not take your eyes off the ball for one second. Throughout the hiring-freeze rut, I’ve had moments of feeling like a total failure for not having found myself a shiny new job as if this was the basis for my capabilities, self-worth or intelligence. It was as though, without having those words that made up a job role, the image I had of myself had been slightly shattered.
With such huge emphasis in our culture on being underpaid and overworked in order to achieve our goals, what is it that we are actually achieving? A high salary or experience in an industry you’re passionate about? But what if you’re not experiencing either, because like so many others, you’re just starting out? Why should we, at this stage, be continually forcing ourselves through fear-inducing jobs or striving for ‘the next thing’ when we haven’t even taken the time to check ourselves?
How can you be even sure of what it is you want if your judgement is always clouded by a relentless work culture? Does this lifestyle allow enough space for genuine, authentic thought? I highly doubt it.
Most of us have grown up subject to the unrealistic, burdening expectation to have to know exactly what we want in life from such a young age. Or as a friend of mine likes to say “just choose something and stick with it,” translating into the very British concept of enduring adversity because ultimately, it will pay off. I call bullshit and my response to this argument is always the same. How am I supposed to know what I want or even what I’m good at, without having experienced it?
While a career is an element of life, it is not our whole life. We are made to feel like the career ladder is everything yet there is no evidence to suggest that this is a reflection of our truest selves. In the same way that it would be inappropriate to say that someone who is single is in any way ‘incomplete’ or ‘lacking’ by not being in a relationship, it seems absurd that a person would judge another entirely on one element of their lives.
It’s no wonder the side hustle took off as it did when people are starting to realise that the career chase isn’t going to scratch every itch they have, such as the creative kind. Still, it has been instilled into our wiring that attaining the perfect, sophisticated job will complete us. In the same way that women ‘should’ feel maternal, we all ‘should’ want to be career people.
I implore those placing such an emphasis on their career alone to critically consider why they feel that way. Does this come from within themselves or is it possible we have been conditioned to feel like this? If one’s job is one’s dream and purpose then, by all means, keep going. My concern is that we have been systematically taught to chase an invisible and false sense of security, status and value that supposedly goes hand in hand with a so-called career. There is no miraculous end to a system perpetuating the notion that a person’s worth is determined by their job role because there will always be a better job. Or as our old pal St Augustine put it, “Desire hath no rest.”
Don’t be afraid to unashamedly cut the ties that link your sense of self to your career. As individuals, we are continuously changing and it would be ignorant to suggest that any job would ‘fix’ the way in which we interpret and face the world. After all, it’s as much about handling things as it is about having things. I have now dimmed the spotlight on the glamorised career woman image in my head as I’ve concluded that it is crucial to remember that you are not your career. Just as you are not your sexuality, your race, your worst days or your mistakes. Let that be something we all keep in mind as the UK Kickstart jobs scheme finally opens for application…
Burnout—the feeling of mental and physical exhaustion—is on the rise, particularly in millennials, and in a time of hyper-connectivity and the ‘hustle’, it’s more important than ever to spot the signs and regain a positive work-life balance. Not doing so could cause problems like ‘errand paralysis’, a condition of being unable to cope with the most basic tasks due to mounting anxiety, which Anne Helen Peterson discusses in her then viral Buzzfeed article. As she writes, “I’d put something on my weekly to-do list, and it’d roll over, one week to the next haunting me for months.”
Peterson’s essay on millennial burnout provoked a wide range of responses, including Josh Cohen’s article published at NBCNews. In the article, he examines some of the factors that may be contributing to burnout in millennials, such as the ‘ego ideal’ and the influences of modern culture. Research from the BBC backs up the phenomenon of millennial burnout, describing it as “not just another snowflake issue”, as does The Guardian’s article written by Dawn Foster. We know that burnout is real, but what can we do to about it?
Well, let’s start with the obvious. We need to take a good look at our relationship with technology. Social media contributes to feelings of burnout, according to Peterson, because much of what appears online portrays others as successful, reminding millennials of the work they must do to reach that standard. Interestingly, studies have shown that heavy technology use is linked to fatigue and stress in young adults, which means taking daily breaks from our screens should be a priority. Because millennials have grown up in a day and age where the internet has given them access to masses of information, they’ve been hard-wired to expect efficiency and convenience.
With thousands of apps at our fingertips, millennials have never had to wait for anything, so it’s no surprise that many young adults feel impatient, and as a result are working harder and faster, burning out in the process. While we can’t change the conditions in which we grew up, we can reassess how we engage with technology to ensure it’s not having any negative effects.
But what about tackling burnout in the office? Executive coach and keynote speaker, Monique Valcour said that “altering your perspective” to view the work in a more positive way is one of the best methods to manage stress. I’ve often found that work becomes more stressful when you overthink it, or when you become too focused on the outcome. Of course, achieving any goal is important but actually enjoying the process makes you more in tune with the work and less worried about the end result. Once we learn to appreciate and focus on the process, start-to-finish, the work can become more fulfilling, reducing the chance of burning out.
Arguably, the greater sense of an urgency that many millennials feel has been exasperated by the rise of hustle culture, an almost cult-like trend being pushed on young people, which advocates that working non-stop is the only way to be successful. A lot of millennials are quite ambitious, and that’s what makes us particularly vulnerable to this kind of movement, as evidenced by Peterson’s account. “Why am I burned out?” she writes. “Because I’ve internalised the idea that I should be working all the time.” I’m not against working hard or being dedicated to your passion but it should never be at the expense of your well-being. There’s no point hustling to the point of exhaustion or taking work so seriously that it becomes mentally draining. Simply put, quit hustling if it makes you feel miserable because no side-project in the world is worth burning out over.
It’s no secret the way we work is changing and many of us in the millennial generation juggle multiple jobs, making good communication all the more important. It’s often said that millennials need continuous feedback at work, which again reflects how millennials are used to speed and transparency. In stressful times, we should embrace our own nature of expecting constant communication by reaching out to people (in the real world) for support. After all, collaboration makes it easier to solve problems and a network of strong relationships could ease the pressure.
Ultimately, burnout is a sign that you need to slow down and reset. While I agree with the central argument in Peterson’s essay, her assumption that burnout is an unsolvable experience is tough to accept—because I think most of us just need to change the way we think. In short, having the right frame of mind is key, so it’s time to fight back, take control and actively manage your time to get past burnout for good.