On the surface, many millennial workers seem to be all hustle and bustle, a generation of strivers, with work as the center of their belief systems. But underneath, are they actually leading lives of quiet desperation?
That question is the focus of two influential stories this month that have pulled back the curtain on workaholism as an aspirational lifestyle. In her story, "Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?," New York Times tech writer Erin Griffith identifies the chief glorifiers of toil culture, including the co-working juggernaut WeWork. From their point of view, she writes, "not only does one never stop hustling—one never exits a kind of work rapture, in which the chief purpose of exercising or attending a concert is to get inspiration that leads back to the desk."
Griffith portrays hustle culture as kind of a swindle, in which the folks at the top of the pyramid exploit the general hunger for meaning in our society to create a cult around the workplace. "In San Francisco, where I live, I've noticed that the concept of productivity has taken on almost a spiritual dimension. Techies here have internalized the idea—rooted in the Protestant work ethic—that work is not something you do to get what you want; the work itself is all."
Why are millennials particularly vulnerable? Griffith cites a recent piece by BuzzFeed News Reporter Anne Helen Petersen, "How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation," in which Petersen asserts that millennials have been running scared practically their whole lives, driven by their own high expectations and those of their parents.
As students, they "were convinced that their first job out of college would not only determine their career trajectory, but also their intrinsic value for the rest of their lives," she writes. Later in the workforce, they struggle to prove that it was all worth it by working ever more strenuously and efficiently, but they never arrive at a finish line. "Exhaustion means going to the point where you can’t go any further; burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years," Petersen writes.
Petersen offers no dramatic plan of action to fix the problem, but sees it as a partial explanation for why "so many millennials increasingly identify with democratic socialism and are embracing unions: We are beginning to understand what ails us, and it’s not something an oxygen facial or a treadmill desk can fix."