‘Hustle culture’ is facing an existential crisis with millennials
This story is part of The Year Ahead, CNET’s look at how the world will continue to evolve starting in 2022 and beyond.
The corporate millennials are not OK.
In a December TikTok video, user @thatcorporatelawyer slowly closes his laptop while lip-syncing Dirty Thoughts by singer Chloe Adams.
You hear: “I get dirty thoughts about you.” You read on screen: “Corporate Millennials manifesting quitting their 9-5 and starting a new life.”
The hashtag #corporatemillennial has more than 64 million views and gives a glimpse of an undercurrent rippling through a section of a group generally defined as having been born between 1981 and 1996. This particular batch of millennials is caught in a moment of redefining their relationship with their jobs.
And for some of them, the new definition means leaving their gigs altogether.
In fact, Harvard Business review found that employees between the ages of 30 and 45 in midlevel positions have seen the highest increase in resignation rates. Seventy-eight percent of millennials in a Harris Poll conducted on behalf of Personal Capital over the summer said they were interested in switching their jobs. Millennial managers are more likely (42%) to say they’re burned out than other generations, according to a MetLife study.
What’s driving this moment is a combination of many things, all happening at the same time. The coronavirus pandemic taught millions of people they could be as productive — if not more — by avoiding the commute and working from home. And then there’s modern technology, which opens up all sorts of opportunities, from selling on places like Etsy to grabbing gig work with Uber. All of this pushes back against the idea of internet-y hustle culture, which places dedication to work above almost all else.
Granted, this is true for only some of the more than 72 million millennials in the US. Not everyone is able or willing to walk away from a paycheck. And in 2021, millennials aren’t the only ones reappraising their work lives. More than 4.4 million people quit their jobs in September alone. There’s no one demographic solely responsible, and reasons run the gamut from women having to prioritize family over career to workers simply realizing they could get better jobs.
Though it’s impossible and inadvisable to treat a generation as a monolith, stats like these are prompting some theories about what could be brewing among corporate millennials. And perhaps the cult of productivity is responsible for a specific set of casualties who are pushing back against a lifestyle that says work is life and life is for optimization.
Do the hustle
Though the term hustle culture has been used to describe the glorification of work, it’s not an entirely new concept, says Rahaf Harfoush, author of Hustle and Float: Reclaim Your Creativity and Thrive in a World Obsessed With Work. The idea that anyone can reap success if they only work hard enough underpins the premise of the much-bandied-about American Dream.
In her book, Harfoush writes about how productivity was originally a framework for organizations like the military, a way to deal with big groups of people responsible for standardized tasks. Over the years, productivity became a tool for the individual, rather than the group.
“We were never designed to sit in front of a computer screen and do back-to-back calls and write and research and collaborate and manage people,” Harfoush says. “That’s just never the way that our brain works.”
The US isn’t the only place where workers are rethinking their schedules. In China, among young, college-educated tech workers, there’s been a backlash against the “996 system,” the practice of working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.
Yet hustling has ascended to new heights. There are more than 4 million Instagram posts tagged with #riseandgrind. Beyond a mere dedication to work, there’s a performative element to late nights and early mornings, and a perpetually green status dot on Slack.
And in Silicon Valley, where you can eat, socialize and do laundry at the office, work can worm its way to the center of anyone’s life. A 2020 survey from the Manpower group found that 73% of millennials reported working more than 40 hours per week.
In her book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, Anne Helen Petersen puts it like this: “Burnout occurs when all that devotion becomes untenable — but also when faith in doing what you love as the path to fulfillment, financial and otherwise, begins to falter.”
Thank God it’s Monday
One doesn’t enter #beastmode overnight.
The younger generations have always been treated as weird when they enter the work world. Baby boomers, born after 1942, entered the job market at a time when it was hip to switch your formal suit and fedora for bright colors and longer hair. Millennials, by comparison, were the first generation to grow up with the internet. And because they entered the job market amid the Great Recession, experts theorized that the age of a lifelong career with only a few companies was probably done. Young people, they said, would jump from job to job.
Over the years there have been a bevy of articles about how to deal with this new, different, wild species of colleague.
One common supposed characteristic of millennials was that they didn’t just want to punch a clock, they were looking for jobs with identity and meaning.
Harfoush attributes some of this to a shift in education style, one that primed kids to think they had special and specific talents to offer the world, and look for ways to use them.
Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, senior research scholar at Clark University, is the psychologist behind the theory of emerging adulthood, which is a developmental stage from the late teens to early twenties marked by the march toward becoming an adult. Arnett thinks those initial expectations for work have less to do with generational characteristics than they do with being young.
Arnett isn’t just looking back 10 years, he looks back 50 or 60 years to trace how young people’s expectations of their jobs have changed. He says that as American society became more individualistic, manufacturing gave way to a knowledge economy and households became dual income. People started looking at work not just as a means of survival. Instead, a job could have meaning.
“That ideal collides with reality for most people,” Arnett says, “as desirable as that ideal is, it’s awfully hard to find work that can live up to it because … a job is not created to fulfill people, jobs are created because people need things done.”
When leisure becomes work
Hustle hasn’t just taken over the way people work. It’s also crept into the way they spend their free time.
Selin Malkoc, associate professor of marketing at Ohio State University, says research has shown that scheduling fun actually lessens the enjoyment of it. So if you’re blocking out 20 minutes on your calendar to have a casual chat with a co-worker in the middle of the day, you’re not necessarily enjoying it the way you would if you’d taken a less structured approach, Malkoc says.
In her research into leisure, she’s also noted that about 35% of people in the US consistently say that leisure is wasteful and, as you might imagine, if you view something as wasteful, you’re not going to get much out of it.
“A natural outcome of that belief is that not being productive actually feels like it’s wasteful because the benefits of working are readily available to us. We know exactly what we will be producing. But leisure’s benefit seems to be much more abstract,” Malkoc says.
After working at several startups with what he called toxic work environments, Rod Thill decided he just wanted a 9-to-5 job. So, he found one at a company, working in sales. It was a place with boundaries, where he could actually log off.
“As millennials, we were fantasizing about the startup culture — pool tables, exposed brick, coffee bar, open bar,” Thill says. “I’ve worked at all these types of places, but then I realized I would rather work in a cubicle with the 401(k) and a 9 to 5, summer Fridays — leave, go home and just enjoy my life.”
Thill also happens to be TikToker with more than 1 million followers, who discovered while working from home during the pandemic that there’s a vein of anxious millennials out there with mixed feelings about their lives in the corporate world.
Maybe if I work late 🤡 and message my boss 🤡 I’ll get a promotion 🤡 ##workfromhome##9to5##millennial
In some ways, he’s a great resigner, too, having left his job to get into consulting on the social media side. He’s also got a podcast in the works that’ll dig into topics like ’90s nostalgia and millennials in the workplace.
In Can’t Even, Petersen writes about that moment of reevaluating what makes for positive employment — and landing on an answer that’s not even that novel: “A good job is one that doesn’t exploit you and that you don’t hate.”
As someone in the thick of corporate millennial TikTok, Thill isn’t surprised by statistics about folks leaving their jobs.
He figures that after nearly a decade in the workforce, millennials have learned which working environments they prefer. “People,” he says, “are valuing their mental health more than their career right now.”