Hard at Work Hardly Working

As I’m writing this, I’m a bit stressed. We have two projects we’re working on, with another one coming down the pike. And while my stomach is churning the same amount of acid as it would be if I were working for a large advertising firm, where I had to wear sensible heels and button-down shirts, I suddenly realized how lucky I am. I write while eating snacks, checking sports scores, and wearing a sweatshirt. I write from home. My days are pretty much exactly how I want them to be, to the point that weeks and weekends often blend together. Yes, I’m lucky enough to do what I love, but I believe that only makes me part of the problem. I feel like I’m entitled to do what I want to do for a living, because I grew up believing I was special.

I don’t mean to step on any toes here, but my generation has redefined the concept of "hard work." I was raised to believe that I was a unique little snowflake. Nearly everyone in my elementary school class was "gifted," talented at something, their path to success laid out for them by eager parents and an educational system that assured them that there was room at the top for all of us. Our paths were clear: do well in elementary school so you know how to do well in junior high, do well in junior high so that you can do well in high-school (or go to a good high school, if private school was an option,) do really well in high-school while playing sports and pursuing a wide range of non-academic activities so that you could be accepted into a good college. Once I got out of college, I was baffled. Now what?

Some of my friends went on to medical school or law programs, others investigated what sort of Masters degrees they’d like to pursue, but, really, I noticed a fair amount of the sheen being tarnished pretty quickly in the eyes of my fellow students. As soon as it was up to us to shoulder the burden and responsibility of actually going to work, that’s when things got weird. For myself, I knew I wanted to write, but I knew that I probably couldn’t make money doing it. I was too cheap to go into debt for a Masters, and I knew I’d be shitty at teaching. I decided to try to work in the industry that I’d studied in school: screenwriting. I mean, it was on my degree, right? That meant that I was supposed to do it. I worked in Los Angeles for a bit, and then said, "Fuck it, I’ll make it in New York." That old sense of entitlement and optimism was back in full force. Why work in LA, a city I hated, when I could move back to the town I loved? I left a good job to go after my so-called dream in a town of my choosing. That’s the first piece of evidence against me.

In the old days, like, the sixties and seventies, when my parents were around my age, you wouldn’t leave a good job just because you didn’t like part of it. At least this is what I hear from my dad and his pals. You’d work. It was called work because it wasn’t fun, and if you weren’t any good at it, you’d keep trying until you got better. Not everyone was going to win first place, there weren’t enough trophies to go around. But if you stuck it out, and really put in some "sweat equity" (old-guy speak for "hard work," or possibly an endocrine condition,) you’d secure a place in the company and maybe win the respect of your peers or your old man. It wasn’t about being the best, it was about doing well and making a living. It certainly wasn’t about enjoying yourself, or pursuing your “calling.” I know plenty of older people who are damn good at their jobs and hate them. Or rather, they would much prefer doing something else other than working all day. And while I pat myself on the back for eschewing the traditional way that people make a living – like, you know, having a job – those people who work hard at jobs that they don’t necessarily like are the ones who have some retirement saved up, who don’t wonder where their next paycheck is coming from. They are the people I know who have kids who are thriving. If I had a kid at this point I’d probably have to nurse him or her until they were in junior high. And I’d probably drink my own breast milk to save money, too. And then blog about it.

I don’t know what brought about this rant. There are many of my friends who are professionals doing things that they love. (They are mainly comedy writers and TV producers.) I also know several truly hardworking young men and women who buck the trend that I’m describing. But a large number of my acquaintances get checks from their parents to cover the rent every month while they sit around, not working and figure out what to "do with themselves." They want an occupation that makes them happy. They want to find a greater purpose and make sense of what it is they were put on this earth to do. Forty years ago, the only people who said shit like that were beat up in parking lots. They were treated like losers, called slurs like "soft." They couldn’t get laid, let alone get married. These days, whining is pretty much standard. We’re always looking for an easier way. Though I don’t want to make sweeping generalizations or alienate anyone, I constantly hear complaints. (Usually coming from my own mouth.) Perhaps it’s a case of grass-is-always-greener. While I’m certainly glad I wasn’t alive in the seventies, I imagine that, back then, people took pride in doing their job – any job – whether or not it made them happy, or aligned with their special talent that Mrs. Jones told them they had back in the second grade.

What’s worse is that I’ve noticed that people seem to equate giving their opinion with taking action. Just look at this blog. Years ago, if twenty-somethings in my parents’ generation had wanted to tell the world how they felt about work, they’d save it for family gatherings or, in my mom’s case, they’d start writing in a journal after too many glasses of pinot grigio. There was no voluminous public forum for telling the world how shitty your Wednesday was. Nobody cared. What’s more, everyone kind of knew and accepted that nobody cared. Generation Y, as we’re called, is convinced that everyone wants to know what we’re thinking. Twitter, Facebook status updates, blogs, all of these nifty advances in technology are mainly used to perpetually shout to the world that we’re here, we’re special, and we matter. I really believe that my parents’ generation would have turned around to the first person randomly telling the world what they were doing in 140 characters or less and said, "Why do you think we care?" We’re so busy expressing our individuality, we’re not actually doing anything. It’s the idea that someone will notice us that matters. As a generation, we’re more focused on being heard or standing out than, say, manual labor. I’m not the only one who has noticed this, either. A line in a USA Today article sums it up well, "…[T]he "millennial" generation (also known as Gen Y), who were born since the early 1980s and were raised in the glow and glare of their parents’ omnipresent cameras. While experts say it’s natural for humans to seek attention, these young people revel in it."

And I do. I really do. That’s why every time I get a comment on this blog it makes me feel like I got a promotion. Every retweet, every direct message, every mention in the Interether is my version of corporate excellence. Now, if we were all paid a nickel each time we posted to Twitter, maybe this would make sense. But instead it’s the ego gratification that has taken the place of a raise. And some people believe that their perceived success on these platforms is the virtual equivalent of a job well done. It’s because we were all raised geared for these accolades. Because we are special. Because Mrs. Jones and our parents told us so. As Paul Harvey, an assistant professor of management at the University of New Hampshire explained about those of us who are actually working "real" jobs, "Basically entitlement involves having an inflated view of oneself, and managers are finding that younger employees are often very resistant to anything that doesn’t involve praise and rewards." And according to this, that means that our adult brains are still believing the same tripe we were fed in grade school.

This sense of entitlement I feel that my generation has is overwhelming. It’s to the point that we’ve actually be dubbed "the entitlement generation." It makes me scared for our kids and, in a weird way, for my future. After all, I know far more people like myself: creative types who have gone off on their own to make a living doing something that suits them. I don’t consider writing to be a particularly strong pursuit, even though it requires a fair share of (wholly enjoyable) hard work, long hours, and figurative elbow grease. It doesn’t put hair on my chest or make me feel like I contribute to the greater whole of society. It isn’t something that warrants complaining about. So I certainly don’t see my future, older self snorting at some little kid’s comment about not wanting to do their chores, and retorting with, "You don’t know what it means to work." Because I don’t think I know what it means to work. And I fear that most of my generation doesn’t know either.