Am I allowed to want less? That’s the question I started daring to ask myself this year when the blistering edges of a burnout were starting to get too hot to bear. Ambition has always been my life raft when I need to escape myself or my surroundings, whether it was poverty in childhood, depression in adolescence or a bad relationship in my 20s. I’ve always held fast to my desire for success as a way to rise above the murky waters below, to come up for air when everything else feels like drowning.
But when that desire for more started to slip away I worried I was losing myself, disappointing a version of me I didn’t even recognize anymore but desperately wanted to hold onto. This idea of abandoning the hustle, of wanting less started to dominate the conversations I was having with my friends, slipping into every DM and WhatsApp exchange as we traded articles about burnout and anxiety and the latest round of layoffs in our respective fields.
When I posted a tweet a few weeks ago about how I felt more and more millennials, particularly women were done with “leaning in” and rejecting the relentless nature of our current work culture, the response was overwhelming, with many women reaching out to say they felt exhausted and over it.
I think more millennials and particularly women are turning against "hustle culture" and the constant search for traditional career validation – the inevitable result of years of burnout, layoffs and employment precarity
— amil (@amil) November 4, 2019
As millennials our generation has come to be defined by outsize expectations quickly tempered by crushing limitations. Particularly as young women we didn’t ever ask ourselves if we could “have it all” because we knew there was no all, we just wanted a piece of something. Choice was replaced by desire, the yearning for self-actualization through material and career success. To have more you had to want more but nothing was out of reach if you just worked hard enough.
Then our student debt matured during the worst financial crisis in a generation, staff jobs gave way to the gig economy and the stark reality of this precarious new landscape was marketed back to us as hustle culture, an opportunity for entrepreneurism, a catalyst to finally become our own “girlbosses.” Why reshape the battlefield when you can lean into it?
“But can millennials, best known for 'killing off' industries, also be the generation to reshape modern work culture? ”
But that notion too has unravelled. All the traditional rewards of success have been eroded. We pay more to live in smaller spaces so we can afford to stay in the cities where the majority of employment is now based. Millennials are the first generation to statistically earn less than their parents at the same age, priced out of most major real estate markets we’re also largely missing out on home ownership and carrying more debt than previous generations. We’ve worked ourselves into a corner and the payoff is that we’ll hopefully avoid layoffs long enough to keep working.
But can millennials, best known for “killing off” industries, also be the generation to reshape modern work culture?
It’s clear that a tide is shifting and people are starting to shine a light on the consequences of the relentless pace of our work, asking if there is a better way forward. At the beginning of this year writer Anne Helen Petersen set off a viral spark when she described her inability to accomplish mundane tasks as “millennial burnout.” The piece managed to put a tangible name to what so many of us were feeling, gave shape to our exhaustion and let us all openly share the weight of what we’d been experiencing. More recently Marianne Eloise at VICE wrote about her desire for (and ensuing guilt over) not wanting a family or a big career. She talks about doing just enough to live a contented life and questions why her automatic reaction to that feeling is one of disappointment and shame. It struck a deep nerve with me. Work is the one thing we are supposed to want, there is a moral purity in pursuing a kind of linear, capitalist success. It’s #feminism, it’s our destiny to become She-E-Os or whatever garbled version of jingoistic advertising helps us self-actualize in the boardroom or more likely, co-working space.
“I felt like my identity had become about the acquisition of success (the big job, the baby, the house) rather than the enjoyment of my life. ”
But I also spent much of this year asking myself if I could be happy with “just enough.” Last year I abruptly ended my maternity leave at 4 months postpartum so that I could take what seemed like a dream career opportunity. I’d spent years trying to conceive a child with my partner but when it came time to leave work for mat leave I panicked. I worried myself nauseous night after night about what would happen to everything I’d built if I stepped away for a year. I thought about salary stagnation, wage scarring, layoffs and how many women my age just left media altogether. I was under water with worry, so I rushed back to work with the hope that my ambition would float me back to the surface. When it didn’t, I became unmoored. I felt like my identity had become about the acquisition of success (the big job, the baby, the house) rather than the enjoyment of my life.
The concept of mediocrity was always anathema to me, if you weren’t striving for something better than you were just settling for something worse. But if in that striving you can’t appreciate the opportunities or the communities around you then “something better” is always just out of reach. So I’ve embraced the middleness and stopped anxiously looking for a fix to a problem I wasn’t even sure I had. Instead of reaching for the life raft I just let myself swim. So much of what we’ve inherited as a generation feels flawed but in recognizing the imbalance of our relationship with the pursuit of an ambiguous notion of success we have an opportunity to reinvent how we see work both as a necessity and an identity.
I don’t know that it’s a better way but at least I don’t feel like I’m drowning anymore.