We talk a lot about how millennials need jobs that don’t just pay the bills, but fulfill the depths of our socially responsible, non-GMO, no-artificial-additives souls. There’s no way we’d settle for the monotonous factory lines or paper-pushing jobs of past generations. Millennials need to be saving the world every time we hit send on an email.
We need to work for a company with a mission. We must make sure a brand’s values align with our personal ones, or else. Patagonia, eat your heart out. Wells Fargo, be very afraid.
For a long time, this is how I thought about work and purpose.
“I’m never going to work 9-to-5!” I told my mom, precisely one year before I started working 9-to-5.
Lit to the point of burnout
Multiple studies show the direct relationship between work stress and health. American millennials are experiencing a unique and heightened breed of this, as they’re caught in the crosshairs of a burnout crisis that comprises stress from work, unrealistic social expectations, the many pitfalls of social media, and the pressure to appear successful at all costs.
This goes beyond unattainable examples of lives lived on Instagram and our rising rates of depression. Millennials in this country are saddled with far bigger concerns, like climate change and more and more school shootings. While some of us feel encouraged by the record turnouts of young people calling for climate action around the world, fighting to stave off the demise of our planet is a crippling burden to bear.
We can’t immediately control the larger things, like melting ice caps. But everyday stress from a highly demanding, high-stakes job factors into our mental and physical health in insidious ways.
Studies show that work stress is especially linked to physical harm.
If a job requires a lot of you, you are likely to be more emotionally connected to it. This means you can feel passionate about it in a positive way. But it also gives you more opportunities to worry about it.
A job that you deem meaningless requires less of you, entails very little emotional energy on your part, and is therefore unlikely to pose a risk to your wellbeing.
The increasing returns of meaninglessness
My first gig was working at a production company making nonprofit activist art for lesbians, by lesbians. With my mediocre production quality output, I was reaching lonely lesbians in small American towns from Laramie to Kalamazoo. They wrote letters back to us telling us how much our work meant to them. We got banned from one network for airing topless badminton. People left dog poo on our office doorstep. I mean, come on—my work mattered.
I went on to work in civil rights, battling the most contentious, defining issues of our time. In various positions, I rallied for Black Lives Matter, transgender people’s right to pee where they choose, same-sex lovebirds’ right to wed, women’s rights to make decisions about their own damn uteruses.
The work was grueling and exhilarating. I had a front row seat to historic moments and political highs and lows. We pulled levers that helped to influence key US Supreme Court decisions, to halt dangerous legislation, to protect individuals and groups most marginalized from becoming another sad statistic lost to hate and discrimination.
I was happy and thriving, doing important work that made a tangible difference in the world. And I was able to pay the bills. I didn’t think it got any better.
Then I got a job offer that promised more money than I had ever made before.
“There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” someone wise and my mother used to say.
Mom was right. There was a catch: The job wasn’t hard-hitting. I wasn’t going to be making a difference in other people’s lives—or anyone’s life really. Maybe not even my own.
The catalyst was a pee stick. I found out I was pregnant within 24 hours of receiving the job offer. Babies were expensive, weren’t they? I told myself it was meant to be. I took the job.
The power of letting it go
I admit it was weird at first. Having a job that feels meaningless is a huge culture shock after doing work that felt so important. Even the jobs I worked where I wasn’t saving proverbial babies still felt important, because my role had been critical to the brand’s mission or central priorities. I was managing the crisis de jour, or the breaking news, or the flavor-of-the-week big announcement or launch. I was needed. I had always felt like I was earning my keep.
But this was the first time I had a job that quite literally was not important.
If I had disappeared tomorrow, the business wouldn’t have suffered. If my job was eliminated, no one would function at a lower level. By doing my job, no one really benefits, and the world certainly isn’t a better place. Zero babies are saved. And frankly, neither is anyone’s time or efficiency.
At first, I felt dread and deep-rooted fear. If there are layoffs, I’m sure to be the first to go, I would think. Once someone discovers my job is completely useless, they’ll definitely fire me.
One day an executive approached me and said, “How does it feel that your work is so deeply buried in the value chain that you don’t even know if anyone is consuming it?”
I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I didn’t.
But as I settled into this new reality, the truth was, it felt great to have a job with no pressure. What I wanted to say to that executive was that I was happy. What I expected to have been an intensely scarring moment actually became freeing.
“I don’t need to pretend I’m doing something that matters,” I told myself, relieved, “because even those in charge know I’m not.”
The moment I owned that truth, I felt my body relax.
I didn’t lay awake at night running through my to-do lists for that big launch the next day, because there was no big launch. I didn’t rush out the door in the morning before finishing my coffee, because there were no pressing meetings to get to, no stack of emails in my inbox demanding timely answers.
It was liberating to admit that I had a meaningless job. I feel healthier because of it. My lower back doesn’t carry the same tightness and tension it once did. I am more pleasant to my family. I take time to read books to my kid in the morning, and I spend more time thinking about the fun evening we have ahead, rather than the meaningless work in between.
Don’t get me wrong, my work is important, because it’s a catalyst to me surviving, to caring for my family. And I take it seriously. But I am not stressed by work. And in my generation particularly, that’s a rare and miraculous thing.
Misconceptions of money + happiness
There is evidence to back the benefits of my carefree state of being. I mentioned that when I got this offer I had never made that much money, and of course trading stress for money seems like a no-brainer.
But after a certain point, money isn’t actually a major factor in how we process and internalize stress.
Yes, I took my meaningless job in part because it offered more money—but I feel certain I would have been just as stress-free if I had made a lateral move, salary-wise.
According to a widely cited study, after a certain point—$75,000, to be exact—more money does not increase happiness.
Finding meaning in your work requires a shift in perspective and mindset, no matter what your position entails—in other words, you can always change your perspective, but you don’t always have to change the job itself. For example, when times get tough and the work isn’t inspiring, you can, as author John Coleman once advised in a piece for Harvard Business Review, simply “remember that your work is an act of service for those you care about in your personal life.”
Not only have I been able to provide for my child, but I also have the time and energy to be a significant part of his life because I’m not burning the candle at both ends with miles-long to-do lists at work.
I have embraced my meaningless job. I carry out my meaningless job with rigor and vigor. I am motivated by its meaninglessness, because it affords me a nice life where I can pay my bills, provide for my family, and not have to stress over deadlines.
I don’t have to worry about midnight email bombs from important executives. I don’t have to lay awake in bed at night going over the checklist for that big event or meeting or speech I’m responsible for the next day. I don’t even get invited to many meetings. It’s a way of life I never knew existed.
I’m committed to staying engaged in current events and contributing to civil rights work in a different way now. Caring about the world and doing my part to help make it better remains a constant beating drum in my head and heart; it’s just not attached to my paycheck any longer.
Yes, millennials are hungry for meaning. We want to be passionate and engaged. We do want to change the world. But combining meaning with work seems to be creating more problems than solutions. We millennials are looking for meaning in all the wrong places—and running ourselves into the ground as a result.
Our success—and our happiness—does not depend on how stressed out, burnt out, and committed to the cause we are. We need to shift our focus and ask ourselves some tough questions. It’s okay to do meaningless work. Meaningless work is literally good for us.