Why Millennials Are Unhappy At Work

Designed by Abbie Winters.
Being a twentysomething in the workplace — whether fresh out of college or a few years into the "real world" — is no walk in the park. We find ourselves constantly questioning our industry, our roles at work, how our managers and bosses view us, and our general abilities to handle the pressures of being an adult. This is not to say that millennials have it harder than other generations. However, we do have a particular set of shared anxieties specific to our age group.

In her book, The Defining Decade, clinical psychologist Meg Jay, PhD, implores readers to make the most of their 20s instead of leaving big decision-making for their 30s. She uses the anecdotes of her real-life patients to introduce, explain, and in most cases, offer solutions to, the career and relationship angst faced by young professionals.

Here, we discuss five common anxieties experienced in the workplace. In an email exchange, Dr. Jay provided us with her valuable input and some sound career advice; it will resonate with any twentysomething navigating a career.


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Designed by Abbie Winters.
You just graduated from college or grad school, and the only entry-level offers you're receiving are of the internship or fellowship variety. These positions, which typically pay minimum wage (if anything), often include coffee runs, sorting mail, and managing someone else's schedule. After a few weeks of feeling unglamorous and unfulfilled, it's easy to throw up your hands and wonder if the work is even worth it.

In her book, Dr. Jay frequently mentions "identity capital" — our collection of personal assets, or "the repertoire of individual resources that we assemble over time." These assets lead us to future opportunities — and we can gain that capital even at seemingly hopeless internships.

But how can we definitively shape these jobs into meaningful experiences, and what are the signs that it's time to bail?

Dr. Jay:
"Looking back on my career...there was always something in it for me besides the paycheck. I needed the money, of course, as I was broke until I was in my 30s, but there were lots of places I could have gotten a paycheck. For every job I had (or kept for long), I made sure that it was a good investment of my time, that in return for my time and effort, I was going to walk away with some new piece of identity capital — an asset like a skill or diploma or position or connection that I did not have before. Paychecks are spent, but identity capital never goes away, and it grows depending on how aggressively you invest and re-invest it. Of course there were temp jobs that had no capital (like when I answered phones for a mortgage company or rung up groceries at a health food store in Boulder), but, usually, I took these jobs on when I was working on some other piece of capital I needed, such as studying for the GRE or taking some class.

"When there is nothing left for you at a job besides money, it is time to walk away, if you can."
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Designed by Abbie Winters.
You're a few weeks into a job and still getting the lay of the land. You hand in an assignment to your manager, who immediately emails you a list of corrections. It doesn't matter if the email was curt or capped off with a big smiley face; the critique stings badly. You immediately begin to wonder why you can't succeed at such a simple assignment, why you haven't found your groove, and why your manager is picking on you.

"When twentysomethings have their competence criticized, they become anxious and angry," Dr. Jay explains in her book. "They are tempted to march in and take action. They generate negative feelings toward others and obsess about the 'why': Why did my boss say that? Why doesn't my boss like me? Taking work so intensely personally can make a 40-hour workweek long indeed."

Dr. Jay chalks this up to the fact that a young adult's prefrontal cortex — the location of the "rational brain" — is still in its developing stages. How can we as twentysomethings decrease the tendency to take work so personally? Is there a way to keep ourselves in check?

Dr. Jay:
"When things go wrong, your brain is capable of 'hot' and 'cold' responses. Hot responses are emotional and automatic, and they come from the amygdala, which is a part of our brain that is wired to work at birth. We scream, we cry, we panic. Cold responses are rational, and they involve thinking more slowly and taking multiple perspectives. These come from the prefrontal cortex, which is a part of our brain that wires up through life experience, especially in our 20s.

"One thing that is very upsetting to the amygdala, and can cause hot responses, is uncertainty. Without question, your 20s are the most uncertain years of your life. This is the only time when, all at once, you may not know where you might work, where you might live, who you might be with, whether you'll be able to pay the bills, and whether you'll be happy in five years. Anything that makes our lives seem more uncertain rather than less — reprimands from the boss, an angry-sounding email — has the potential to spark hot responses. Cool them off by using your prefrontal cortex. Buy yourself time by listening to feedback and saying you'd like to think about it before you reply... Ask friends how they would respond, as we can usually be more rational about other people's problems than our own. Imagine your conversation or email exchange winding up on the internet — it happens — and do a gut check on how that would feel.

"Whatever you do, remember that feeling anxious and insecure does not necessarily mean you're doing something wrong. It may just mean you're stretching yourself by doing something new and therefore uncertain."
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Designed by Abbie Winters.
It's natural (albeit unhealthy) to compare yourself to others in the workplace, especially when thrown into a new environment. Those who have been at the company for longer, and/or are older and wiser, seem to have been born with a confidence we simply don't possess. We may readily accept this as fact and continue believing that we will never achieve that level of capability.

Dr. Jay describes two mindsets that twentysomethings may take on in a work setting: growth and fixed. The fixed mindset is one in which we believe that people are either innately confident or not. When we think this way, it's easy to convince ourselves that those who are more experienced in our workplace naturally have higher self-esteem, and that we just don't have "it." On the other hand, those with a growth mindset believe that people can change and success can be achieved. How can twentysomethings practice a growth mindset and learn to quiet the fixed mindset?

Dr. Jay:
"Read autobiographies or memoirs or biographies. I'm addicted to them. I love the way they show you what goes on in the 100,000-plus hours that go into building a good life (forget 10,000 — that's just the getting-started-at-work part), and that a lot of those hours aren't pretty or fun or even dramatic. Some of my favorites: Decoded by Jay Z, The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, My Story by Marilyn Monroe. When we see successful people, we are tempted to assume that they just 'have it' or they 'lucked into it' or 'they inherited it' when rarely is this the case, as any good memoir will show."
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Designed by Abbie Winters.
If you find yourself at the bottom of the workplace food chain for long enough, it can be difficult to maintain or build confidence. After all, if you were doing a truly great job, wouldn't you be moving up the ladder more quickly? "Mastering your emotions at work builds confidence," writes Dr. Jay in her book. "Then, you can hang around long enough to have other successes at work. It's going to take time...about 10,000 hours' worth."

How can we make the most of that time leading up to feeling truly confident in the workplace? Is there a way to expedite it, or perhaps an exception to the rule?

Dr. Jay:
"Sadly, there are no shortcuts. In all of the clients I have seen, and all of the nonfiction I have read, I have never come across a person who was happy and successful who did not put the work in, or who did not struggle along the way. In fact, the clients I have had who never struggled, or who were never required to work hard on their own behalf, have been some of the most unhappy and unfulfilled people I have ever worked with.

"Still, rather than thinking about the 10,000 hours as work or struggle or something to expedite, what about embracing them as fleeting? Believe it or not, 10,000 hours from now — if you use the time wisely — you won't be working for/under other people anymore. Hopefully, you'll be the expert or the boss. This is your chance to go work for your heroes, or at least to gobble up every bit of experience you can, while no one expects you to know it all. Get out there and take risks and 'fail early' — fall down on your face while the stakes are still low."
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Designed by Abbie Winters.
Jumping from one industry to another is not uncommon for twentysomethings. How are you supposed to know if you're better suited for marketing or publishing without testing both waters? But when you do make the leap, it can be difficult to explain to a future employer why your path seems scattered. In her book, Dr. Jay writes about the importance of having a concise story — making what you have accomplished fit together into a bigger picture.

Given our need to explore in our 20s before settling in one industry, is it better to skew the "outlier" experiences we've had into that story, or to leave them out altogether? And how can we maintain that narrative while still trying new things to see what sticks?

Dr. Jay:
"It depends on how much identity capital those experiences have, and what they say about you. To use your example, if I were interviewing you for a marketing job, I would love to know that you played competitive tennis for many years — and I would love to hire you! That choice tells me that you are competitive, obviously, and that you are not afraid of hard work, regular practice, competition, risk, or even failure. That's not an 'outlier' experience; that is an excellent metaphor for what you're made of. If you'd spent three years temping or waiting tables, what that says about you depends on what the story is there. Were you putting your little brother through college, or were you being indecisive?

"Like I said in The Defining Decade, the best thing I had going for me in my 20s was that I had spent five years as an Outward Bound instructor. That was what set me apart and made me interesting to graduate schools and employers. Sure, 4.0s are impressive, but they are not good conversation-starters."
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