FROM READERS: Why does work suck in your 20s?

Monday, October 14, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:22 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 14, 2013

Columbia resident Patrick Miller serves with Veritas, The Crossing's campus ministry at MU. This was previously posted on The Crossing's blog, Every Square Inch.

Let me lay my cards on the table. I'm a 20-something. So I write not as a seasoned worker, but as a peer struggling to finding meaning after college. I became disillusioned with work quickly after graduation. My job was to fundraise, and I expected this to be both encouraging and quick. It was neither. I lived in a new city, hours from my fiancee. Months passed, expectations lingered, and hope faded. God was breaking me off some long-held beliefs (see below).


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My experience is not unique. As a friend, I've listened to peers who can't find a job (or the right job), who work for brutal managers, who are stuck in low-level positions, who can barely make enough to pay rent. As a college minister, I've counseled some graduates who lost hope of finding work, and others who, finding work, feel like they're living a nightmare. In darker moments, I've seen disappointment devolve into doubts about God, marital strife, alcohol abuse and depression.

These examples paint a bleak picture, but maybe they resonate? If you're a 20-something, I imagine they do or once did. They beg a question of immense personal significance: Why does work suck in our 20s? And more importantly: What can we do to find joy at work? Let's start with the former.

Work sucks because we harbor unrealistic expectations. If you grew up in the '90s or '00s then you grew up in the height of the self-esteem movement. Today you reap the bitter fruit. The self-esteem mantra is that if you put your mind to something, then it is yours. That quaint illusion (the world is your oyster) deceived us before 2008, but today it's simply ridiculous.

College graduates compete with professional veterans for entry-level positions, so the market is hardly ripe for the picking. Most of us won't get our "dream job" even if we apply ourselves with utmost industry. Our experience defies the self-esteem mantra. Thus, when we find ourselves in a lackluster job, we wonder, "Is there something wrong with me? Am I failing?"

According to the mantra, if I really want it, then I should be able to get it. The problem is that I am not in control of the universe. I cannot create jobs. I may not be the best guy/girl for the job today. The reality is, we may have to work in a not-dream job for a long time. But that doesn't mean we're failures.

In fact, most people in history did not choose their careers. We still experience greater vocational freedom then people in the past. The problem isn't often the work itself; it's our unrealistic expectations about what work should be like. But perhaps this is a disguised blessing. God warns us that good times often lead us to forget him:

"And when the Lord your God brings you into the land ... with great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant — and when you eat and are full, then take care lest you forget the Lord." (Deuteronomy 6:10-12, ESV)

If we won our dream job, we'd be tempted to worship it, to live for it, to exist for it. We'd be tempted to forget God in our prosperity. Maybe paper pushing is saving us from a greater evil? Maybe God is sanctifying us through our not-dream jobs?

So, if finding our dream job isn't the solution, how can we find joy in our work? The Bible gives us good news: We can find joy in work, no matter what we do, because Jesus invites us to work for him. This is most clear in Paul's words to Christian servants:

"Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ." (Colossians 3:22-25, ESV)

Let me ask: does your work feel more or less menial than servitude? Would you choose being a slave over your current work? I doubt anyone would answer "yes." Yet Paul elevates even servitude to glory by saying it (if done for God's sake) will be rewarded with an eternal inheritance.

Here's Paul's point: no matter what you do for a living, you can do it for God's glory. When you're processing paperwork, you can do it for a paycheck or your boss's approval, or God's glory. We honor God by doing our work excellently because he is excellent and loves excellence. We honor God by doing our work heartily because he is hearty and loves hearty work. We honor God by doing our work ethically because God is a holy and loves honest work. When non-believers see our good work, they too will honor God.

 The self-esteem mantra creates a two-edged sword. One edge cuts by promising that we can get whatever job we want if we try hard enough. The other edge cuts by promising that wealth and successful make us fulfilled, happy people. Both edges sever us from real living. Both threaten to rob us of the true glory of work: Serving Jesus for Jesus' reward.

So let me end on a few practical points:

First, don't quit your job simply because it's not perfect (or even half-perfect). Work is hard. Work is tiring. And sometimes it's boring and frustrating. This is your opportunity to practice working for God. Consider how he watches you work, how he feels honored by your work, and let your significance flow from his pleasure in it all.

Second, don't work simply to move up. Success may come more slowly than we expect, as new upper-level positions are hard to find, and competition is thick. If you're living for a promotion, you'll end up crushed, disappointed, and depleted. Work heartily for God, and if success comes, thank him.

Third, don't work for money. You'll never make enough to satisfy that idol. You'll make sacrifices that never pay off: your spouse, your friends, your kids, your faith, your ethics. Instead, set your heart on the reward that Christ offers. That's a life-giving reward you cannot lose.

This story is a part of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.

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Ellis Smith October 14, 2013 | 7:18 a.m.

There are some excellent points here, says this 80-year-old retired professional. The first is the harboring of unrealistic expectations. Few Americans born before the mid-1930s in this country entered the workforce, at whatever level of formal degree or skill, with unrealistic expectations.

I have previously made the point that, as individuals, those of our generations were neither superior nor inferior to today's high school and college graduates, so WHY SHOULD THERE BE THIS UNREASONABLE DEGREE OF EXPECTATION ON THE PART OF MORE RECENT GENERATIONS?

First, be glad you HAVE a job-if you have one. You may have several jobs during your lifetime, so try to learn something from each one.

Do not make the mistake of assuming that because you have a degree or high school diploma that you know a lot (of practical value) OR that you can then stop learning; your entry into the workfoce is when you should START learning, and keep on learning.

In choosing a university major you must realize that in our society some occupations command better opportunities and remuneration than others. Whether this should be the case is certainly open to debate, but what is, is. There is no mystery as to which occupations those are, and it fascinates me that some youngsters today, and their parents, seem not to recognize that. Some occupations require advanced degrees as an entry requirement, but some do not. There are still occupations with good prospects and remuneration that either require no college degree or only an associate degree.

We all need to have a sense of humility, and parents should instill that in their children. We are not perfect, and the world we live in is most certainly imperfect. As St. Paul reminds us [Romans], "For all have sinned and fallen short of God's glory."

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin October 14, 2013 | 10:12 p.m.

Work may be hard, frustrating, difficult, and unbearable at times, but it should never be tied to indenturement.

That's what the young have to deal with today that the old generally did not. And that's why the expectations bubble has burst.

No one wants to be indentured, but as the grim realization sets in that educational debt has created a generation of indentured servants, the expectation of even modest financial freedom becomes unreasonable.

Given this new reality, I'm doubtful most 80-year-old retirees have enough perspective to advise young people today.

Take this business about occupations with the best "remuneration."

Unlike the olden days, many of those occupations now come with mountains of educational debt.

To prattle on about how parents and youngsters today "don't seem to recognize" which occupations offer the best "remnuneration" misses over half the equation: the part tied to that indebtedness -- i.e. the indenturement -- and the "remuneration" required to break free from it.

As far as "unreasonable expectations," who created them? I'm a parent of two Millenials, and I can tell you my wife and I didn't create them.

But we don't have to look far to see who did.

Colleges and educational institutions sell unreasonably-priced degrees with unreasonable expectations.

Student apartment developers sell unreasonably-priced $700/bedroom apartments, with the unreasonable expectation of luxury living at the age of 19 or 20.

The oldster crowd collects Social Security, Medicare, etc. by over-selling the expectation that if a young person only works, works, works -- even at a job they detest -- they will have a better tomorrow.

Those same oldsters should be selling the young on the benefits of business ownership and entrepreneurship, but instead, they talk so much about "getting a good job" it's become part of the government lexicon.

Jobs, jobs, jobs. Tax breaks for job creation.

Good jobs, after all, pay Social Security bills more effectively than self-employment, which offers better opportunities to legally shelter income from taxation.

The only expectation most young people I know have is not to live as indentured servants during the most productive part of their lives.

If that expectation has become unreasonable, it's our fault, the adults in the room -- not theirs.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz October 15, 2013 | 4:59 p.m.

I agree with Ellis on most of his points. I've seen unrealistic expectations from some millenials that I'm close with, who expect the "good life" that their parents have without even finishing (or attending) college and not realizing it took their parents decades to get where they are. They believe in the idea that quick, easy, financed debt is a way to leap ahead, until you can't pay those obligations. That hanging with friends is more amenable than going to that job you don't like or keeps you apart from your significant other.

When I was in my 20s, I worked a warehouse job for the five years I was in college. It was minimum wage, not terribly exciting, but I learned to work and did so with a decent crew of human beings for the most part. Part of it was likely not wanting to embarrass my dad, who did some work for the company that first employed me. I didn't have the money for fancy digs or a new car. I commuted to college from my parents' house in the old family van. I didn't attend parties, other than the annual house decs and a couple football games (damn those Widenhofer years). Times weren't easy, but they encouraged me to finish college so I would have something better ahead of me. I got pretty lucky getting on with the company I did after college, but my work didn't slack off once I got on board.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith October 16, 2013 | 1:43 p.m.

Mike and I appear to agree on one thing: that universities and colleges today sell high-priced degrees with inflated expectations of what the degrees are really worth. I will ask again here, as I have been asking, whether considering that the costs of a higher education have risen out of proportion to other matters (except health care), today's students are getting anything more for that increase than what we paid.

John and I know each other, though not well. While John and I studied engineering in different eras, his description of how things were as a student appears close to the situation when I was an undergraduate student.

And 6 years to obtain a BA or BS degree (assuming not having to work and only attend college on the side, having to temporarily drop out due to illness or family problems, etc.)? Bulletin: Colleges and universities are supposed to be places of organized learning, not "Club Med" for faculty and students.

As I have previously noted, I recruit (unpaid) for two public technical institutes; I normally only give advice when asked, but I most definitely get asked.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams October 17, 2013 | 7:36 a.m.

In another place, Ellis wanted to know why I had not posted on this article.

I didn't post on it for 2 reasons:

(1) While I am a Christian, I shy away from proselytizing...which I feel this article did. Heck, atheists are much more evangelical about their atheism than I am about my Christianity. The article did not need such an approach and was harmed by it.

(2) At the time this article was published, I was already thinking about aspects of this very issue. In particular, I'd been paying attention to all sorts of communications in papers, radio, TV, talking heads, marketing experts, concentrating on just how many times such communications say I "deserve" something.

For example, why do I "deserve" a good steak at CC Broilers? Why do I "deserve" to be happy in any business establishment? Why do I "deserve" a good job? Why do I "deserve" a promotion? Why do I "deserve" an "A"? Why do I "deserve" a winning team? To my consternation, many of the more conservative outlets (hell, I'll name one....93.9 radio) routinely run advertisements touting that I "deserve" something.

Quite frankly, my list of true "deserves" is a very short list compared to the one others tell me I should have.

The concept of "deserve" is a claim to a "right".

And, I guess I've just grown satisfied with the notion that my "rights" were mainly limited to the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself. Personally, I demand and deserve the right to pursue happiness, but I have to make it happen.

So, in conclusion, I will answer the title to this article "Why does work suck in your 20s?" as follows: It's because current 20-somethings, 30-somethings, 40-somethings, and 50-somethings think they "deserve" too much. Their "deserve" concept is incompatible with their "effort".

Listen to the words you hear/read around you each and every day. The word "deserve" is all over the place...and IT SELLS!. In the face of such inundation of what you should want and expect, is it any wonder young and old folks have gained unreasonable expectations of things they should have but not work for? Can you say, "Doomed to failure?"

PS: Actions by the Missourian towards readers who might respond in this place are designed to inhibit those very people. Except in isolated incidences, why should I bother as a reader unless the issue just burns within me? For example, I had no idea anyone was even commenting on this article until Ellis mentioned it in another place. I simply read this article once, said "OK", and dropped it from further review.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith October 17, 2013 | 10:20 a.m.


Agreed. I thought you might have missed the article. Thanks to some changes made on the Missourian home page, that's not difficult to do, and when someone does comment, it isn't easy to know that they did or who made the comment.

You have previously noted that.

"Freedom of the press." It's nice to see that the press itself is unfettered.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz October 17, 2013 | 2:25 p.m.

Ellis, I made the same comment about the lack of comments to Joy Mayer a couple weeks ago. She mentioned to me that they got lost due to a front page redesign, but if you click on the From the Readers tab at the top of each page, you can see the current comments list and see who's say what about what.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith October 18, 2013 | 7:59 a.m.

Thank you, John. I suppose it was truly a coincidence that the "rearrangement" of the Missourian's home page ocurred at exactly the same time some of us were simultaneously "dumping" on one of the Missourian's unpaid columnists (and worth what he's paid).

Since Michael Williams had questioned this matter at least twice after the rearrangement, I wonder why an explanation wasn't given at that time.

It's all good, John, some's just better than others.

(Report Comment)

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