Our generation doesn’t have a great rep. We go by different names: Millennials, Generation Y, GYPSYs, and Peter Panners. But no matter what we’re called, the stereotypes are the same. Older generations tend to think we’re lazy, self-obsessed, entitled, disrespectful, and whiny. Regardless of whether those negative stereotypes are fair or not, there’s one stereotype that rings less like a stab and more like a truth: Many Millennials entering the workforce are unhappy.
In a biting yet humorous article on Millennials, Wait But Why explains this generation’s dissatisfaction with a simple formula: Happiness = Reality – Expectations. Because Millennials have expectations for their lives that outpace their realities, many find themselves low on happiness. When explaining the cause of Millennials’ inflated expectations and their relatively unsatisfying realities, some point to the poor economy, others criticize how Millennials were raised, and others blame Millennials’ stereotypically poor characteristics. I think our generation’s discontent can be explained by something a bit different: We tend to look for happiness and fulfillment in the wrong places.
Work, fun, and meaning in life used to be separate categories that were pursued independently. But Millennials now believe that work should be enjoyable and purposeful. To stereotype this generation as spoiled or elitist for holding these high job standards is harsh. However, it’s fair to say that some of our unhappiness stems from the assumption that work should pay the bills while also being fun and fulfilling. Perhaps this expectation is specific to privileged Millennials, like the ones attending Columbia, who may believe that their rigorous education warrants a dream job. The problem is, most jobs can’t make you happy—and unfortunately, assuming they can will probably make you unhappy.
Let’s look at two examples. First, a Millennial is willing to take a low-paying job that lets him pursue his passion for art history. Though he knows he’ll likely be underemployed, he’s willing to take the hit because he believes the work will fulfill him. Here’s the problem: His job in the art world may very well be the opposite of fulfilling. The Millennial is probably doing administrative work, waiting for a promotion, and hoping to someday become a curator. In the meantime—which can be a long time—he’s broke and he isn’t passionate about his job. Chances are, he’s unhappy because he expected to be fulfilled through his work, not because his work is objectively terrible.
In a different example, a Millennial is less concerned about working to fulfill a personal passion, and more interested in working toward a meaningful cause. The problem is that there are too many Millennials who want to become doctors, or work at peace organizations or top non profits. So the do-gooder who wants to make a difference in the world becomes frustrated that the job market is apparently oversaturated with do-gooders. And if or when the do-gooder Millennial does land a nominally important job, he may be upset to realize that his actual role in that company isn’t changing lives the way he thought it would. The realization that a desire to do meaningful work can’t easily be met with a full-time job is extremely disappointing. Cue unhappiness.
What’s the solution for the passionate art historian and the kind-hearted do-gooder? I’d say the art historian should take regular museum trips, and the do-gooder should volunteer. To assume that passions should exclusively be satisfied through full-time jobs may lead to sadness and frustration—not because jobs today are worse than they were in the past, but because our generation has more unrealistic demands for fulfillment from a job than prior generations did.
Where can we find happiness, then? I wish I had the answer. But I can take a few guesses: family, friends, and an understanding that your job—no matter what you’re doing—is serving an important function, even if that function isn’t fun or fulfilling a grand goal.
I don’t mean to say that Millennials shouldn’t pursue their dreams, or that it’s wrong to value employment based on how enjoyable it is. Of course everyone should aim for jobs they like. But an unreasonable search for the “perfect” job may lead to more unhappiness than if one were just to accept that all work is important.
For Millennials to be convinced otherwise—that we need the right career to be happy—is an injustice to ourselves. It means that we may fruitlessly search for happiness in the wrong place, and we deserve better than that. Though we may not be able to control the negative stereotypes about us, at least our happiness is in our own hands. We just need to be realistic with where we expect to find it.
Sarina Bhandari is a Columbia College senior majoring in sociology. Keeping Balance with Bhandari runs alternate Wednesdays.
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