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Do People In Their 20’s Work Too Much? Probably, But It’s Mostly Our Fault

By / 03.04.13

Every generation has its own anthem of making the journey from youthful naïveté to adult reality, whether it’s Neil Young’s “Old Man,” Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or most recently, perhaps, the Taylor Swift song “22.”

“Tonight’s the night when we forget about the deadlines,” it goes. “It feels like one of those nights, we won’t be sleeping.”

If only it were as easy for Ms. Swift’s less affluent contemporaries to blow off their deadlines as it is for the singer-songwriter (now a slightly more seasoned 23). Sleepless nights are more likely because they are on the clock, not at the club.

 

Ha. We can make the easy joke about how we're already trailing via that which is our generationally defined music taste, or we could think about all those all-nighters pulled to write a bunch of pages on some topic that we don't totally remember, all in the pursuit of getting at least a B+, because “good grades = JOBS = $$ = the cooler, more expensive restaurant. We all did that to some extent, motivated by the expectation that it would pay off later. 

But later, as we keep getting told, is beginning to look as reliable as that kid who responds “attending” to every single Facebook event:

The recession has been no friend to entry-level positions, where hundreds of applicants vie for unpaid internships at which they are expected to be on call with iPhone in hand, tweeting for and representing their company at all hours.

“We need to hire a 22-22-22,” one new-media manager was overheard saying recently, meaning a 22-year-old willing to work 22-hour days for $22,000 a year. Perhaps the middle figure is an exaggeration, but its bookends certainly aren’t.

 

 

So work is our life, and because we don't make any money, we also don't have lives outside of work. There's sort of a reason to this though:

The young are logging hours, too. In 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, full-time workers ages 20 to 24 put in just 2.1 fewer hours a week than those 25 and over. That’s not a big gap of leisure for the ostensibly freewheeling time in one’s life. Or, to quote Lena Dunham’s 24-year-old aspiring writer in “Girls,” “I am busy trying to become who I am.”

 

Yes, LENA DUNHAM REFERENCE, but think about this from the standpoint of “becoming who I am.” Self-important at best, but mostly pretty frightening and/or a big fuck you to the economic engine that has powered this country for the last half-century. “Becoming who I am” is not being an accountant, an overseer of construction site, let alone a real estate agent. It's a very narrow pool of a bunch of high entry barrier occupations, most of which are even more difficult to sustain a living that allows you to by both milk AND orange juice per every supermarket run. On a very basic level, we're facing a very frightening supply and demand problem:

“Particularly in some rock-star professions — film and TV and publishing and media — companies are pushing the envelope to see how much they can get out of young people for how low a stipend or salary,” Mr. Perlin said. “And people are desperate enough to break in to do it.”

That’s what Katherine Myers, 27, found when she graduated from college in 2008. After months of searching, she landed a position as a development coordinator at a cable channel in New York.

“I was willing to put up with anything,” she said. “I never took a lunch, I came in early, I worked late.”

 

Yes, but as you should. Because again, supply and demand. The beauty of this country has always been that if you perfect the formula of outworking/being more talented than everybody else, you will succeed. The tragedy of this country is that the cost of doing that–namely long-term mental health problems and a general inability to enjoy things not directly correlated to you and your ambitions–can sometimes render that end goal “not totally worth it.” 

Complicating matters is the fact that it is not yet known how to quantify or define digital work. Forget e-mail.

“Is a tweet labor? Is a Facebook post labor?” Mr. Perlin, the author, asked.

Ironically, millennials, to whom the burden of monitoring late-night social media or e-mail frequently falls, may be underestimating the value of such work. Their habits of consuming culture free of charge on the Internet, he suggested, have “carried over into the world of work, so they’re more willing to accept barter or in-kind payment,” like free lunches. And their primary payment is building “cultural capital,” as opposed to “capital capital.”

 

Ergo–if you're #addictedtothegrind, you have a better chance to #beheard. 

Children of helicopter parents who have been overscheduled since nursery school might find it especially hard to set professional limits. As part of the generation “that’s been taught to engage in labors of love,” Mr. Perlin said, “it’s led us into these fields, and secondly, it’s encouraged us to knock down that boundary between life and work in the traditional artist mode.”

“You can’t get a job by saying, ‘I just want a job,’ ” he said. “Your heart has to be supposedly in it, and you have to demonstrate that by staying as late as you’re supposed to stay or responding to e-mails at 11 p.m.”

 

This is true. But if you find yourself identifying with easily mockable, yet relatively telling statements like “my life is my art,” you don't necessarily deserve any sympathy. One because of how that statement sounds when said aloud, but two because any “labor of love” requires a good deal of gruntwork. If you're a writer, you have to do shit like find and agent, or figure out how to market your Great American Novel. If you're a fitness guru, you have to avoid eating awesome smelling pizza. And if you're an entreprenuer of some crazy cool startup, you have to remove yourself from “the scene” and actually do some work every once in awhile.

Mr. Perlin pointed out that “some studies show that people in their 20s work eight or nine jobs in that period, which economists see as a good thing, but they aren’t looking at the stress and personal toll it takes.”

Ms. Myers’s parents, too, “appreciate and encourage me, but they’re baffled by” her career in entertainment, she said.

“They don’t think that I’m on a track,” she said. “They think there’s no point unless you’re making money.

“It’s a legit question,” she continued. “I’m going to turn 30 in the next few years, and it’s hard to be young and feel like the gap is so big between my station in this industry and others who are doing so well in it. To get up every morning, I have to think that I’ll be one of those people. But I happen to be a delusionally positive person.”

 

The funny thing about this “look at how much I'm struggling because I'm hell-bent on mattering” movement is the fact that on some level, we're failing to recognizing the existence of this “what we have vs. what we want” equilibrium. Sure there was a time not too long ago when you worked at your job, made money by working at your job, and then had a life outside your job. But there was also a time when you liked a song, but couldn't listen to it on loop for hours on end and not have to pay a cent. Just as there was also a time when you couldn't spend your day at work not actually working via the luxuries of gchat and websites like this one. 

There's some sort of equation the world is forgetting. Yes, you should be able to leave work at go meet up your friend to get drinks at a bar, or not have to feel like you're being a shitty employee by simply eating dinner with a girl when you're technically off the clock, but perhaps the most interesting thing here is that if we're so intent on getting paid to be ourselves, what you do as “work” and “leisure” should then hardly be distinguishable. That's not exactly addressing the fact that a lot of these jobs take advantage of said passion by having employees do things almost completely unrelated to said passion, or the propensity for 20-somethings to take on all these sideprojects because “have a job during the day, pursue a 'career' at night,” but these things, in some capacity, are just realities in the ever evolving system that's clearly undergoing some big-time growing pains. Yes it's unfortunate that we have no money and stuff, but the blame goes both ways. You know what dish you ordered–so either eat that thing you decided was the most appetizing, or starve.

[H/T: New York Times]   

overworked dude pic via shutterstock


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