The only things I have done tonight are masturbate and scroll through Cardi B’s Instagram until my wrist hurt. I am wearing a promotional Sopranos T-shirt that reads, “I WANNA MADE MAN” [sic], but what I really want is to have a drink.
In order to convince myself that this is not the wave—the skin on my face is so red lately—I stay put in front of my phone. I look at pictures of a girl whose accessories line is not my bag, but whose complexion is fantastic. Her items have spunky witticisms on them like “You said U loved me but you lied”—dispatches from the presentational, commodified Instagram sadness that I see everywhere online, especially from young women. I am repulsed by it in a way that is slightly unfair, and more than slightly hypocritical: I am deeply sad, too, inside my chest and ankles and brain and flushed nose, and I don’t want to feel even guiltier about being a slug tonight by confirming that to myself. For commodifying it? For being a sad young woman? No—for feeling it at all, and for letting it take up my time. I can’t imagine the disgrace I’d feel if I were sad in public, and especially online. I have to be operational—better than operational—productive, which means visibly and readily capable and on call—at all times, at work or elsewhere. My livelihood depends on it.
I’m 25. Earlier this evening, I read an article about how it’s awful to work with people my age, because we’re… something. It was unclear—what are we supposed to be, or not be? We are too much of a presence in the workforce and not enough of it, said the article. One of us ate a fragrant sandwich in an important meeting, and another made a treehouse instead of going to the office one day. These details inferred that we are all layabout treehouse-sloth tuna slobs who don’t deserve the wages we might command, unlike many of our more august colleagues, who definitely didn’t cruise-control us into an economic hellscape by failing to adapt their work to the way all of our lives have changed, preferring instead to expense their lunches, refuse to diversify, and berate us—the largest generational group with jobs—for not picking up their slack. We “overshare” on the “internal online e-net”; hence, we are coddled, ultramodern namby-pambies whose softness is professional (read: psychological, as these are definitely the same thing, hinted the article) terrorism against our elder forebears.
C’mon, now. There’s a fallacy built into this: If people my age—a generation whose range is undefined by the writer, but presumably (and in practice within this species of trend piece) finds its perfect exemplar in a technically proficient mid-20s person like me—are so intellectually helpless, how would we even know how to masticate the livelihoods of such smart and straight-shooting businesspeople with but a bite into our StarKist? More important: Why don’t more people try an angle about intergenerational workplaces that highlights the need for mutual support and skill-osmosis between different age groups, instead of misplacing blame by shunting it onto one age group or another, and widening the derision and suspicion older people have toward younger ones, and vice versa? Instead of denouncing “oversharing,” a term which has been both created and co-opted to tamp down the validity of a given person’s experience, it should be seen as paramount that workers across the generational spectrum are forthright about what and how we can symbiotically teach one another. This requires the oh-so-new, flashy, and unprecedented act known as “talking.”
Articles about people my age are just as fond of making sweeping indictments, based in only a subjective anecdote or two, as the reactions by Snide Youngs like me about Generation X-Games are, and none of these interpretations are scalably accurate. As Dr. Jessica Kriegel, the author of Unfairly Labeled: How Your Workplace Can Benefit From Ditching Generational Stereotypes, said of age-based profiling in a recent Fast Company interview:
There’s not a lot of hard data that supports any of these assumptions. It’s all anecdotal, case studies, research studies with 200 people that they apply to the broader population, and it’s really damaging [...] What really determines whether someone is frugal or if they want to save the world has to do with, Did your parents feed you? Did you have an aunt that spoiled you? Did you have books in your home? Did you go to a good school? There are a million factors that go into determining the kind of person you are when you grow up, and this arbitrary 20-year-long age bracket that is widely accepted is not one of them.
I wonder how a piece about “my generation” would read based on the night I’m having. We are actually posted up in bed alone on a Saturday, exhausted from the work put in this week at two full-time jobs, and trying not to feel bad about taking a break from projecting sunny wellness, skill, and gratitude into the world for a few hours, plus not go into the tailspin of mental equations about loans, taxes, and rent that we recalculate instantly, by rote, whenever our brains are almost about to idle for a second. (I know young people are far from alone in freaking out about money, but we, as we are so fond of pointing out, were given a fairly bum deal in most economic respects.)
But I don’t know who we are, really: the impacts of class, race, education, and gender on young adults’ incomes make generalizations tough. I am a writer and an editor. I worked so hard I made more than I ever had in 2015—before taxes, student loans, rent shared with two roommates, and debt. My fortitude is unlikely, as all transcendence of economic class is, even for a white woman who went to college: I grew up shuttled from place to place, carried by the blithe and balmy currents of familial poverty, domestic abuse, and addiction. These themes controlled most parts of my life except its main one: Productivity was everything. The work, and so progress, I made was the sole thing I knew was mine. I protected my work and used it as protection. Now, productivity controls me, and I feel I have to protect myself from capitulating to it. I feel the need to look like a perfect worker pervading every other aspect of my life, so I’m beginning to resent being productive, or the way it’s understood as a modern Eightfold Path.
I understand the position from which the Times article about young workers was conceived, even though I have qualms with its tone. Professional assets earned by many older people over decades are becoming archaic and unwanted. That is wrenchingly unfair. So is the way we talk about it: Ageism is real, and very scary, but it cuts both ways. When an organization hires younger workers to reduce costs, and/or so longtime employees don’t have to learn new skills, everyone loses. It’s confusing for all involved. With this division in place, there’s no expectation of mutual instruction. What’s required of each person is muddled and hard to grasp, let alone live up to. This is what leads young Instagrammers like me, aware of our predicament in this scenario, to panic and try to do everything at once, without knowing what expectations we’re supposed to be meeting in the first place.
My discomfort with appearing less than pristinely comfortable is borne of the worry that a potential employer will read me as “dysfunctional”—or, at least, engaging in negative thinking over “positive self-talk” (to the end of productivity, of course), which is somehow worse. When you refuse to give yourself time to be sick and sad, you become sick and sad all the time. (You said U loved your life, but you lied.) You burn out and withdraw, even though those are the last two things you want to (and can afford to) do as a young professional. If there is, in fact, one characteristic that is truthfully illustrative of people under 30, it’s that we are expected to feel boundlessly lucky and grateful to have jobs. We—I—really do. We are terrified to admit otherwise. And in many cases, I was too terrified of being replaced to think about much else at all.
I entered the full-time workforce the day after graduating college in 2012. I had no prior experience with the expectation that one should maintain a perfectly optimized professional persona in and outside of the office. I thought that knowing exactly how to better yourself and your work was a process, rather than an entrance requirement. Previously, I had worked my way into publishing pieces with editors who took the time to teach me what they knew, rather than expecting me to somehow come equipped with that knowledge. That changed, along with the world around me, as the time for proper training and two-way generational edification was sapped by a professional climate rife with slick shortcuts to just about everything and an internet overstuffed with ∞ Easy Hacks about how to improve upon the piteous churl that you are. When everything is supposed to be easy, understanding how, exactly, to do your job is the hardest work of all.
Once you do cobble together a way forward, there’s no time for missteps. If and when I have received praise in many jobs I’ve had after college, it has been for operating as proficiently as a piece of machinery—for the sequences of my life when older colleagues best capitalized on my work without wanting to move forward themselves. The detriment was mutual: to the possibility of our teaching one another what we knew. The more I finessed, corrected, and most important, hid, the aspects of my character that could be considered unseemly (or, worse, like a waste of something), the more of a gleaming young work-pony I became. The people who paid me graciously provided more and more hoops for me to jump through. I was caught in a classic double bind for people my age: You are expected to build your own very specific version of success while simultaneously homogenizing it into an asset companies can use. I played into this expectation; the system all but ordered me to, if I wanted to make a living wage. Professional arrangements of this order don’t allow us to learn from one another very well.
When I was a little kid, maybe six, I read that every physical object in the world was coated in microorganisms. I was devastated—not because I was grossed out, but because didn’t that mean I was hurting them, crushing them, killing them when I put my hand against a knob to open a door? Or when I took a step, or breathed? I felt monstrous. This is kind of what it’s like to feel constantly monitored by a generation of colleagues and commentators who haven’t taken sufficient time to guide or teach you. The overall impression is that you are fucking up all the time, egregiously, in ways you cannot see or avoid.
And lo, behold the terror of perpetually erring, and the need to work myself away from it and toward something of value (to my employers). In exchange for tamping down the worry that I had somehow not been worth my wage—that, in fact, I was far worse—I would, of course, do more than what was asked. When was the last time any of us were able to look at our contracts, on the rare occasions we have them, and not fall out completely over the hilarity of our job descriptions? We did triple what is listed there. My attitude in the past was thus: I don’t even necessitate good feedback for working 12-hour days to receive little pay and another list of crises; just don’t audibly confirm my suspicion that you think I’m a moron, and please make sure my paltry paycheck is there a few days after I need it.
When you work all of the time, which many people need to if they’re to have any chance at financial stability or advancement in their fields, there are often behavioral warrens to hack through: What worked at one job is uncouth at another, even if you were hired on the basis of your performance in the first role. At one job, I was expected to demand half-hour turnarounds on edits from writers, completely rewrite articles that didn’t “work” for evasive reasons—sometimes nearly from scratch—and run them under bylines that didn’t read “Amy Rose Spiegel,” and cheerfully collaborate with a handful of people who openly resented me for the grievous crime of entering the world after they did and still earning a living. (My fault, sorry!) When I decided to take on a more traditional role elsewhere, only one of those conditions applied. Professionalism as defined by one company can spell career suicide at another, and adapting ceaselessly can keep you afloat, but it’s also easily taken advantage of.
People around my age are told by the New York Times and countless other op-ed drossmasters that our feelings and habits are economically and socially dangerous, plus shameful. More so, I think, is a basic fact of power that you and I, whomever we are, demonstrate every day, either on one side, or the other, or—most commonly—both: The people who have power delegate as much labor as possible to the people who don’t. This often translates to: Poor people do work for rich people, young people do work for old people, non-white people do work for white people, and non-male people do work for cis men. And so on and on and on. I’m not going to tick through the full list of injustices, as though anyone ever could. I’m already So Sad Tonight :(
An awareness of identity politics and an emphasis on inclusivity are derided by many people who have never experienced them or taken them seriously. But everyone needs them if any useful learning—and working—is to be done. My experience as a white woman is likely a mild one, and it’s nonetheless been bracing. Not long after I started at one job, in my first meeting with a large team of developers and executives—out of about 12, there was one other woman in the room—I was criticized by one man thusly: “You know, you’re supposed to be the voice of this company—and I have to say, I just thought you’d be a little softer.” He paused to develop this trenchant thought to its stunning conclusion: “Like… more soft.” I had been talking about ideas for prioritizing the needs of our product’s market. Instead of taking his (wildly misogynist) expectation into account, of course, I instantly toughened up.
At other times in my career, I have been admonished for gently (or do I mean softly) pointing out sexism and racism. Someday, we’ll talk about how, at one company, it was assumed that naming a feature after a racist stereotype was OK. When I met with one older editor for a prominent newspaper about a business partnership, he closed out my visit by making a date rape joke. In a different meeting, I watched an older man respectfully shake the hand of a male colleague, and then, taking mine, lean all the way in to kiss my cheek. I have had to respond to these lovely encounters perfectly, which here translates to silently. And if I were nonwhite or nonbinary, it would likely be worse.
In terms of industries in upheaval, like publishing and entertainment and tech, there is a willful pushback from the ruling classes against strategic, thoughtful evolution, in which zippy cyber-jargon is conflated with progress. The head-bashing way industry leaders rotate empty words in conversation—“It’s like Uber, but for selfies”; “It’s like Snapchat, but for .GIFs”; “It’s like Seamless, but for dying”—portends a not-great approach to creating useful additions to the world. The total embrace of newness and fear of newness are an ugly-assed pair of twins. What passes for the concept is often afforded the misnomer of “disruption,” which, should you attempt to parse the internet for a concrete definition, will lead you to pursuits as time-consuming and fruitless as pinning down the specifics of the term “millennial” as a catchall.
Disruption is typically affixed to derivative work modes dressed up in some awful “modern” aesthetic or technology-based tweak that’s supposed to stand in for meaningful change, like how the office-rental company WeWork is “disrupting” other co-working spaces because they… have an app, and feature neon signs spelling the word “HUSTLE” on their walls, along with region-specific decor (like Applebee’s, but for the free market!). Business analysts are obsessed with tracking and interpreting potential disruptions as though there’s something any truly unique small company can glean from an email-forwarded examination of Instagram and Facebook’s latest tête-à-tête, rather than by giving workers experience-based support and resources, or even the time it took to read that article to actually devote to their jobs. In an article about a grueling position held at a startup, Dan Lyons gets closer to pinning the motivations behind these vacant strategical models than I’ve read elsewhere:
Treating workers as if they are widgets to be used up and discarded is a central part of the revised relationship between employers and employees that techies proclaim is an innovation as important as chips and software. The model originated in Silicon Valley, but it’s spreading. Old-guard companies are hiring “growth hackers” and building “incubators,” too. They see Silicon Valley as a model of enlightenment and forward thinking, even though this “new” way of working is actually the oldest game in the world: the exploitation of labor by capital.
Many of us, across the generational spectrum, are trying to figure out other ways to work—or at least a way to compromise with the current state of capitalism. We are also trying to serve other people in doing so: preferred causes, our communities, and those we care about (including each of ourselves) monetarily and otherwise pragmatically. We have learned there is more value in this than in making do with the dubious rewards of shoddy self-care narratives that would convince you it’s okay that so many marginalized people are totally fucked over, income-wise, at low-level jobs as long as you have a quick-’n’-healthy dinner and soothing grapefruit-scented shower gel waiting for you at home. Besides, you need money to pay for those things, so you’d better keep working so you can stay in the game.
Sometimes, though, to quote Linkin Park’s “In the End,” it doesn’t even matter how hard you try. I was told by many people, for a long time, that I was “empowering young people” by running myself raw to facilitate resources for them in one role. I worked 10-or-more hour days nearly every day, including Christmas and the day of my mother’s graduation ceremony (on which I worked closer to eight hours and made up the difference after midnight) as an independent contractor, taking as many freelance jobs as I could on the side. At the end of each year, I owed at least $7,000 in taxes, and sometimes well over. I was so brainwashed by my own mix of martyrism, ambition, and piety that I tried to turn down a paltry raise so others at the company would be paid more. After years of constant production, management, output, debt, and sleeplessness I was fried to my core, and no longer felt very much like an empowered young person. I felt like a depressed good-for-nothing horse’s ass who had to quit thanks to feeling like the world’s primo hypocrite, and it has been very hard to shake. Despite every difficult implication on the rest of my life, I loved that job more than anything—until I didn’t—and that compounds my uncertainty as to what “good work” means even further.
“Empowerment,” for all the canned discourse about how we P.C. Internet Youngs (it’s like, screw you, we’re Macs!!!) are tearing at the country’s gilded free-market stitchwork, is the ultimate false bill of goods. Dan Lyons, in his article about that startup job, writes, “We were told we were ‘rock stars’ who were ‘inspiring people’ and ‘changing the world,’ but in truth we were disposable,” and I relate deeply to that bait-and-switch.
Some time back, I made about $30,000 per year in a more-than-full-time editorial role at one of the world’s leading, very highly funded youth-targeting tech companies (then and now) which required a majority of its staff members to live in the most expensive city in the world. I was micromanaged by a tyrant who once told me not to use feature images for my work that depicted black people because “they didn’t get good traffic.” I was criticized on occasions when my posts touched on sexism or racism, even when I was pointing out something in the news by linking to opinions expressed by the people covering it. But I needed the money, and even when you land a “good” position, a word which can mean just about anything in this market, it’s nigh on impossible to transcend your social class, especially without bending to the same structures that reinforce it. The income divide, no matter how enlightened you may be on a personal level, is still starkly in the favor of those it has always been. It is a destructive myth to accept “empowerment” as fair pay.
The catharsis of cramping my wrist and slugging out in my underwear tonight was immense. It was scary and galvanizing. It wasn’t “self-care”—it was self-negation, which I have not allowed myself in years. It’s not sustenance, but productivity isn’t, either. I’m freaked out that I need Instagram and assuming the role of Billie Joe in “Longview”—two mediums I have never even liked all that much—to feel close to myself. Tonight, I am trashing myself as a last resort, because everything else that I actually love has too much luster on it now that my interests have become career-based considerations (like something loudly enough, and someone will order you to commodify it), and so are impossible to enjoy because they’re superimposed onto that professional, microbe-destroying guilt. And boredom. Everything is work now.
I feel vulnerable writing this, but I’m so tired, and I know older people are tired, too. When I try to think of what it must be like to have ascended your whole life just to watch some jerks in half-shirts speak to one another in cartoons, and you don’t understand because you are too busy trying to get by, and then they want your daughter to sign up for “AOL, but for sexting,” you are like, What the heck—I am just trying to get home and make my loved ones a quick-’n’-healthy dinner, plus maybe take a nice, hot shower with that good-smelling citrusy soap I like.
We’re all tired because we’re overworked, sure, but that’s not really it: We are all tired of having our usefulness sapped and our worth publicly diminished. Here I can only speak as a younger person, but I am tired of a professional history of writing pieces I love and stay up all night to work on after working other jobs all day, selling or being hired off of what matters the most to me (not just professionally but in general), seeing it as the immense privilege that it is to even be paid for my ideas/ability rather than continuing to also work in a coat store/call center despite the barely adjusted pay grade, and then, my misplaced gratitude having barely faded, being told that the things that I worked hard to make, that were deemed valuable and attractive in the first place, are too emotional or brash—too much of an overshare, although I have long tried to ball-gag my heart in even the professional settings that overtly wanted to pay for it—to keep going forward with. That the employer would like me to try a new direction. (Surprisingly, these were never all that new.)
Alternatively, I’m tired of having been manipulated into positions where I love the work so much that I am expected to overlook being reamed financially and in terms of my quality of life in order to maintain my job, then worrying I will be undermining that hard, tiring work if I ever, ever express a shred of discomfort about that fact instead of lacquered enthusiasm and perfection at all times, and so actively misrepresenting and glossing over what those experiences were, rather than potentially reflecting imperfectly companies that I don’t even work for anymore, and hurting my own heart in the process.
There is a version of this sincere heartache no matter where you fall. Minimum-wage workers are invisible at every age. Middle-aged and older workers have their own set of silent punishments, their own financial pressures that are grim at best—their seniors refuse to retire or can’t afford to, causing professional stagnation for their subordinates. And that’s only the case for those who have been able to maintain jobs, who haven’t been pushed out of dying industries into temporary positions with no benefits: finding new jobs among lower-class senior workers is especially difficult, and for women even more so.
Insofar as current industries present some possibility of ameliorating these conditions, there are viable alternatives to this mess. Work would change in America if we looked at each other differently. As Gretchen Gavett writes in The Harvard Business Review:
Our preoccupation with differences only heightens our fear and anxiety in a world that’s already scary enough. Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, the Gen Z up-and-comers—we all want the same things (income, sure, but also purpose, and to feel valued) just in slightly different ways. The challenge is to look past the stereotypes and listen to one another so that good work gets done efficiently and humanely.
There’s no reason it should have to be such a “challenge” to treat one another considerately. It’s actually pretty easy to make the decision to respect someone. I have had killer mentors. They taught me how to fact-check over the phone, omit false ranges, print hard copies of drafts and mark them longhand, and give people the benefit of the doubt. A notable similarity among these colleagues was their open curiosity about what I knew, too: In the cases of those who were older than me, this meant asking questions about new phenomena instead of treating them as murderous.
An enriching culture of work—one that makes us feel enriched as general humans—is reliant on reciprocal instruction. Expanding your self can so easily be translated to improving your work in non-gross capacities: When you are encouraged in constructive ways to take pride in your ability, cultivate it further, and excel, you (a) are more fulfilled and (b) are able to deliver more efficaciously on labor of consequence to everyone involved in producing it. You’re not just thinning the value of something you’ve already got by applying it too often and too far, which is currently the case across the temporal board.
It is our responsibility, all of us, to talk to one another about these things, despite the professional cost we (reasonably) fear—despite possibly preferring to maintain a lazy, flimsy take on “self-care” over honesty and potential change. Caring about opening this up to others, of all ages, for discussion and reflection—oh, shit, oversharing, my milleni-dawgzzz!!!—is the most straightforward kind of self-care I know, rather than pretending that this internal attrition is being kind to myself, so long as I, like, make sure to buy myself a muffin and do a face mask every now and again. It is clear to me that no one making decisions for us—of all ages, collectively—is looking out for us. We have to look out for one another, and figure out different ways to go from here.
Amy Rose Spiegel is a writer and editor in New York. Her first book, Action, will be published by Grand Central on May 17 and is available for preorder. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The FADER, Rookie, and other publications. She’s into lomo saltado, how weirdly good Wet n Wild lip liners are, Patra, and her sour pet. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram if you like.
Illustration by Jim Cooke