Last year I had a job I couldn’t quit. When I left the States, my plan was to leave the job as well, but I couldn’t resist leaving the door open (the job was online so I could work from anywhere). When I got a job in Wellington, I intended to leave the other job, but I told myself that making extra money was always good and it wasn’t like I was doing much in my evenings anyway. Essentially, I had two full-time jobs for most of my year in New Zealand. When I moved to Australia, I finally sent that “Sorry, I won’t be able to do the job any longer” email… but I still left the door open for a return.
It’s not because I love the job or even the pay; it’s because I feel like if I’m not constantly working, I’m doing something wrong. Right now, I’m “funemployed” as I look for work here in Australia, but I’m keeping busy in addition to job-hunting. I ran 50km last week, I’m doing yoga every day, I’m updating my blog more regularly than I ever have, I’m reading, I’m doing most of the grocery shopping and laundry and almost all of the cooking. I’m hardly just sitting on my bum watching Say Yes to the Dress reruns (I mean, that’s what I’m doing right at this moment, but in general).
I’m not worried about money, either; obviously I need to start working at some point because I don’t want to blow through all of my savings, but thanks to those eight months of double-working I’m not in a rush from a financial perspective.
And yet, I still have moments when part of me is nervous and wondering if I should send another email and try to get some work on that old job again. When I read Anne Helen Petersen’s essay, How Millenials Became the Burnout Generation, I suddenly understood why:
That realization recast my recent struggles: Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done? Because I’m burned out. Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it — explicitly and implicitly — since I was young. Life has always been hard, but many millennials are unequipped to deal with the particular ways in which it’s become hard for us.
I’ve always described myself as someone who loves a high-pressure, deadline-oriented environment, but only recently have I stopped to consider that maybe I only feel like I’m expected to love it. I like to keep busy, yes, and I definitely do well in a fast-paced role, but it’s hard for me to say whether that’s actually the environment I crave or if I just feel like I should because I happen to be good at it.
Moreover, I’ve always identified as a writer—it’s what I studied, it’s what I did for my first “big girl” job, and I’ve always assumed that it was my career goal. But I’m beginning to wonder about that, too. When I was writing full-time for work, I was writing almost nothing for myself. Although I take pride in any work that I do, I wasn’t exactly stretching myself creatively in my writing job, but the act of writing itself made it so that when I finished up work the last thing I wanted to do was continue writing by working on my blog or my other personal writing projects. Petersen writes:
So what happens when millennials start the actual search for that holy grail career — and start “adulting” — but it doesn’t feel at all like the dream that had been promised?
When I was working as a receptionist, I felt like I wasn’t experiencing the same sort of creative burnout. I updated my blog. I read books. I completed my own mini version of NaNoWriMo. But although admin work is a completely respectable career, part of me can’t help but feel like I’m taking the easy route out since I’m qualified for something different and therefore “should” be doing it.
As much as I loved the freedom that came with freelancing full-time and would like to go back to that someday, I’m coming to realise how much it contributed to my feeling of burnout. I never really switched off—if I was watching Netflix or listening to a podcast, it was while I was working. I never turned down extra work even if I had already done plenty that day (and significantly more than anyone else; there were days I did 40% of the work despite being 4% of the team), because in my mind I couldn’t justify saying no. While it was obviously great for my bank account and brownie points with my coordinator, it wasn’t so great for my mental health. This paragraph of Petersen’s essay really resonated with me:
But the phone is also, and just as essentially, a tether to the “real” workplace. Email and Slack make it so that employees are always accessible, always able to labor, even after they’ve left the physical workplace and the traditional 9-to-5 boundaries of paid labor. Attempts to discourage working “off the clock” misfire, as millennials read them not as permission to stop working, but a means to further distinguish themselves by being available anyway.
Now I’m working on recalibrating my mindset toward work and what I “need” to do. I’m trying to stop thinking of myself as “lucky” for having enough savings that I don’t need to urgently find work, when the reason I have those savings is because of the intense amount of work I did over the last year. I’m trying to practice saying “no” to things that don’t serve me, even if I’m technically capable of them. I’m trying to remember to place value in things that have benefits even if they don’t come with a paycheck, things that improve my mental and physical health, bring me creative growth and joy, or keep the household running smoothly. When Steve came home from work yesterday, I told him what I had gotten up to while he’d been at his job and he said, “very productive day,” and I realised: yes, it was.
Obviously, exercise and household chores don’t pay the bills, so I am of course still applying for jobs and looking forward to hopefully joining the Melbourne workforce soon. But until then, I’m going to cherish this time to focus my “work” on myself and appreciate having the privilege to do so.