Fifteen years ago, when journalist and author Charles Duhigg received his degree from Harvard Business School, he remembers he and his classmates being excited by their “good luck,” as he writes in the New York Times Magazine. “A Harvard M.B.A. seemed like a winning lottery ticket, a gilded highway to world-changing influence, fantastic wealth and … a lifetime of deeply meaningful work.”
That assumption was mostly wrong.
In “Wealthy, Successful and Miserable,” part of a series of articles in the Times on the future of the workplace, Duhigg writes that a generation of overachievers who seem to have gotten everything they want are, in fact, unhappier than ever — and that the powerful, high-paying jobs they worked so hard (and paid so much in tuition) to get are the problem. “I feel like I’m wasting my life,” one investment banker, who feels trapped by his $1.2 million a year job, relayed. “My work feels totally meaningless.”
Job dissatisfaction, of course, is not a new phenomenon. These days, however, the stakes — those larger salaries and the lifestyles tied to them — are higher, as are the expectations. And living in an era of self-care and self-empowerment has led many to believe they are entitled to have it all, “authentically” at that. Meanwhile, social media fuels the idea that everyone else is happier than you. What results is a new American workforce increasingly defined not by what it has achieved but what it feels it lacks.
There’s no doubt that previous generations did not always find true “meaning” in their work, whether they were doctors or lawyers, car salesmen or carpet-installers. Work was what you did. You were glad to have it, or at least resigned to it, and so you went there. You came home in time for dinner, and you rarely worked after hours.
A 2016 Erasmus University Rotterdam study of four generations of workers found that earlier generations valued job security and wanted to avoid risk.
In other words, Baby Boomers were loyal and respectful of hierarchy. As new generations entered the workforce, and “work/life balance” became part of the cultural vernacular, people were more likely to voice their discontent — or expect conditions to change. And, more recently, a 2017 Gallup poll found that only 15% of people worldwide feel engaged at work.
The difference, though, is that these days work is everything. Americans work longer hours, and we retire later — if at all. Work is our identity and source of fulfillment. It is also how others judge us. A recent piece in the Atlantic defined “workism” as “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.” And “workism,” wrote the article’s author, Derek Thompson, is making Americans miserable.
What’s new, too, among today’s generation of workers is that — miserable though they may be — they have the luxury of being able to voice dissatisfaction when it arises, and they do. Today’s employees, and especially those who attended prestigious schools and landed prestigious positions, have the expectation that satisfaction ought to be part of the package.
A 2018 poll of 5,000 professionals conducted by the Korn Ferry Institute, an organizational consulting firm, found that the number one reason people leave their jobs is because they’re bored. Number two: They’re looking for a new challenge. Our era of self-empowerment has more people believing they are entitled to a happy, fulfilling life — and especially those who were fortunate enough to attend schools like Harvard.
There’s a status attached to meaningful work as well. High salaries, job perks — those matter, naturally. But these days, especially among a crowd of one percenters who all earn good salaries, and who all entered the workforce, as Duhigg writes, with an expectation of having “world-changing influence (and) fantastic wealth,” there’s a desire to be able to say you love your work — and really mean it.
Meanwhile, although several studies over the years have demonstrated a correlation between higher incomes and greater happiness — including a landmark 2010 study from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, which said that the lower a person’s annual income falls below $75,000, the unhappier he or she feels — most people agree, at least in theory, that money does not buy happiness.
That same Princeton study reported that income-influenced happiness tops out at about $75,000 — that is, your $1.2 million a year job isn’t scientifically proven to make you any happier than the one that pays you $75,000.
And yet, if Duhigg’s sources report feeling trapped by their fancy jobs, it’s because in a sense they really are. The stakes are higher for high achievers — workers who got locked into high paying jobs early on that they, and their families, come to expect. That’s not to say they don’t enjoy the benefits that come with this.
The problem is that, without fulfilling jobs, it can seem that the money, the homes and the cars are all they have. And so, in them they will remain, increasingly unhappy, with no way out but up the corporate ladder.
When you look at it that way, it’s hard to feel bad. These are America’s most privileged. But try telling them that.
Of course, there’s no quick fix for professional unhappiness. Readjusting expectations, after all, is easier said than done — requiring the work not of weeks but potentially of a lifetime. In the end, the solution to workplace misery may come back to the idea of pursuing work/life balance.
If your work brings less meaning, perhaps that meaning can be found in other pursuits: hobbies, family time, volunteering. Assign meaning to more than work, and you’ll be less reliant on work to bring you meaning.