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Why are millenials workaholics?


Millenials are workaholics, research suggests. They are more likely to give up paid leave, and to see themselves as “work martyrs”, than previous generations, and the research seems to stand up to removing the variable of age from the equation. But why?

The HBR blog reporting on this latest piece of research ties the trend to an increase in narcissism, in a belief that one is an important person, as well as increased economic vulnerability: higher levels of personal debt, unforgiving housing markets, etc. So, it’s a combination both of a sense of self-importance and a fear of irrelevance? I guess millenials have got a lot of issues to work through…

I don’t really think of myself as a millenial, but technically I am (1981 feels like a really early start-date, demographers!). So I thought I would write something about loving work, and how we learn to love it.

I remember, more than a decade ago, filling out my Common Application form. It was an alienating experience. I was more than disheartened by the list of extracurriculars provided for us to tick off as having done in high school, and intending to do in college. What did I have, as a student from a fairly poor school in the UK where half of the common US extracurriculars didn’t even exist? Well, I had me.

I turned out to be enough then, when my college’s acceptance rate was 9.1%. I felt lucky. And a fraud. I had a lot to live up to. I was aware just from the long list on the Common Application form that I needed to up my game.

I do interviews for prospective undergrads every year, now, and the acceptance rate at my alma mater is now 5.2%. I feel even luckier. To have been born a few years earlier, to have been part of a less competitive field. And I still feel a fraud (in fact, even more of a fraud, given some of the exceptional candidates whom I speak to every year).

And I still have much to live up to. I was chosen as having ‘potential’, so I’d better produce, huh? And I’d better remember how easy it might have been to not be so lucky, to have been instead in the 90.9% who were turned away.

The message that we have ‘potential’ is a key part of the self-esteem narrative. It contributes to the apparent ‘prizes for all’ culture, where it is the level of progress made relative to one’s starting point, rather than the achieved end point, that is praised. I always felt I was cheating if I didn’t do excellently, and never let anyone tell me otherwise. I was offended when the exam board dropped the hardest module of A-level Further Maths the year after I’d completed it, so that the year behind me got an easier ride. Offended both for myself—over the devaluing of my grade, which would be compared to theirs—but also for them—over the fact that they weren’t going to learn so much. But I have always known ‘potential’ as not only promise but also obligation.

Having ‘potential’ means there is an obligation to produce, to demonstrate that trust—by parents, teachers, college admissions boards, bosses—has not been misplaced. It is not, perhaps, a real obligation. As the HBR piece notes, it is simply not true that work done by one employee cannot be covered by others. But it is a compelling feeling nonetheless, and one that I think is exacerbated for women and minorities who, often still struggling to break into some careers, need to have far more impressive CVs than white male counterparts in order to succeed. For women and minorities in the millenial group, there is a double helping of obligation (and that’s before we even start to think about how individual women or minorities are held up as exemplars for their group, with one individual failure generalised to us all).

In terms of work obligations, I am apparently about to free myself of them. I am about to take a career break, and for a while, at least, I won’t be able to take any temporary employment. But when some prospective housemates who asked me how I was going to spend my time, the first word out of my mouth was “working”. Because I will be. I’m an editor with a journal, an administrative director of a Digital Humanities project, and I have a PhD to finish, as well as hopefully some articles to produce for publication. Much of this work is not paid. My studies are self-funded. Much of what I do academically has been done for the joy of it, as it is utterly irrelevant to my established career. And there is joy in it. Lots. But it’s also all done out of sense that I must use my time productively. After all, what else would I do? Because heaven forbid that I not have things to put down if ever I had to account for my extra-curriculars again.

And I think that’s the key. Millenials have a sense of having to account for themselves, their time, their potential, which we’re a bit narcisstic about, yes. In accounting, we’re trying to write a narrative of our lives that is impressive, interesting, or otherwise valuable.  A narrative on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, our CVs and timesheets. And I think that’s why so many millenials are workaholics.


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