I grew up watching rom-coms in what was arguably its golden era: the late ‘90s and early-mid 2000s, when movies like How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days, 13 Going On 30, Miss Congeniality, Never Been Kissed, and Sweet Home Alabama were blockbusters. These films had a profound impact on me. I know I am not alone in this. But my takeaway from these movies had little to do with the importance of getting married by a certain age, or the notion that I would somehow meet eligible men in, like, random elevators or by physically bumping into them on the street. It was that I would grow up to move to the big city, inhabit a gorgeous apartment, wear gorgeous clothes, and most importantly, have a Dream Job. What I romanced wasn’t so much a diamond ring or a picture-perfect wedding, but a high-paying, super-fulfilling career in a cool, competitive field.
To this day, I become irrationally angry when women in movies and TV shows throw away a hard-won professional opportunity for the company of a romantic partner who doesn’t support their goals. I haven’t forgiven Lauren Conrad for not going to Paris, or Andy Sachs for getting out of that limo, or Carrie Bradshaw for giving up her column and following that cranky artist to Paris. (Why is it always Paris?) But lately, I’ve been thinking that I should. Maybe these women who jettisoned big titles and a reliable salary in favor of a personal life had it right all along. Maybe the dream job is little more than a tool that’s been used to keep ambitious women forever spinning on a capitalist hamster wheel all the while losing out on the things that make life worth living. No, unlike the movies, I don’t mean a man and kids. I mean freetime, physical and emotional well-being, and interests that don’t directly correlate with somebody else’s bottom line.
Indeed, in a world where outwardly appealing, ostensibly forward-thinking companies are regularly exposed for treating employees poorly, where gender discrimination and racism are still reflected in our paychecks, and where the idea of “work-life balance” is more of a theoretical concept than something most professionals feel they can strive for, there’s been a growing backlash against the idea of a dream job, with people tweeting that they don’t have one because they “don’t dream of labor.” Hard to argue with that.
“The idea of a dream job as an item to procure, a destination at which to arrive, something you are rather than something you do, and a status symbol is definitely a reflection of the deeply ingrained late-capitalistic, productivity-obsessed, puritanical, American exceptionalism norms,” agrees Megan Hellerer, a career coach for “under-fulfilled overachievers,” who has worked with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She adds: “The ‘dream job’ concept is always looming in every coaching conversation I have in one of two ways, both despair-inducing. It can show up as the disillusionment of a failed ‘dream job,’ or the paralysis of feeling like one can’t start her life or her career because she doesn’t know with certainty what that dream job is.”
It’s understandable, then, that many young workers are pushing back against toxic modes of thought that place productivity and classically defined success above all else. Even before coronavirus, we had significantly less job security than our parents’ generation did, but according to a recent survey by Deloitte, by May of this year, one in five millennials had lost work. The millennial generation is also the first to make less money than those before it; a 2019 report by the think tank New America determined that millennials are earning, on average, 20% less than Boomers did at our age, despite being more highly educated.
It’s just not accurate or safe to define ourselves by where we work or what we do anymore, because chances are, we’re underpaid, overworked, and living in fear of being laid off. We also have the vocabulary, knowledge, and platforms now to articulate the ways in which corporate America is a deeply sexist, racist, classist institution with a lot of dated rules and mores that don’t make much sense in the context of the modern world. Even if you’re doing something you ostensibly love, it’s hard to feel like your job is a dream when you’re battling microaggressions, working multiple gigs just to pay the bills, or feeling chained to a desk all day in business casual attire when you could theoretically be doing your job from anywhere.
“I definitely grew up with a dream job in mind,” says H., 26, who spoke to Refinery29 on the condition of anonymity, so as to speak freely about her past employers. “I wanted to work as a magazine editor and live in New York, like every rom-com protagonist. I ended up majoring in journalism and when I graduated, magazines no longer seemed viable. I got a ‘dream job’ at CNN, which ended up being a nightmare. I've given up on the idea of a dream job. I now wish for a dream life.”
Part of the problem may be that many of the jobs we collectively idealize — like magazine editor, fashion designer, musician, etc. — are hyper-competitive, often initially low-paying fields that require years of toughing it out in expensive cities, working crazy hours under people who believe you must “pay your dues.” Meanwhile, there are plenty of other jobs with less Hollywood potential that may ultimately beget a happier lifestyle. And that’s something more people are beginning to consider. “I have these two conflicting desires: to have a job that's exciting and fulfilling and feels important to me, and to have a job that allows me to live somewhere that makes me happy, and potentially have children, and not have to be afraid of emergencies or just everyday expenses the way my parents were when I was growing up,” says Lindsay, 22, a publicist in New York.
“I realize that I wasted a lot of time as a young person that I could have spent having a fun college experience on interning, taking 20 credits a semester, and working part-time jobs on nights and weekends,” says Kayla, 25, who lives in Philadelphia and works in fashion. “I was always fed the narrative that the fashion industry and job market in general was so cutthroat that I never took a step back to prioritize my life outside of a career. I also wonder if being so enthusiastic for this position let me be taken advantage of and paid less than others despite my extensive experience.”
Many disillusioned workers are coming to the conclusion that they want a life where they work to live, rather than live to work. But it can be hard to admit when the job you thought would be a dream is really more of a waking nightmare, especially if you’ve already put years of hard work and expensive schooling into achieving it. Coronavirus and the resulting economic crisis, however, have sped up this process for many people, especially in industries where the pandemic has wrought significant job cuts. Even for those who still have jobs, the events of this year have forced us to re-evaluate what’s really important in life.
“I’m basically walking away from a ‘dream job’ in music supervision that had me working ten-hour days for $17 an hour, with no benefits,” says Jules, 25, who worked two additional jobs in order to afford to live in Los Angeles. She was laid off a few months ago due to coronavirus, and has no plans to go back. “I was able to pick up hours at other jobs, and it’s been wild to see how drastically my mental health has improved now that I’m working less and making more. But it’s weird to look at all your heroes and be like ‘Oh shoot, I do not want the life you live now, nor the life you lived for 20 years to get there.’”
Many of the factors that lead to this disillusionment are, perhaps unsurprisingly, gendered. According to a 2019 study from Cigna, women are more stressed at work than their male counterparts. It doesn’t help that most workplaces are still not set up for women, and especially women of color, to succeed. We have the worst national maternity leave policy of any wealthy nation, 81% of women say they have been sexually harassed at work, and studies like the 2019 American Time Use Survey show that we work longer hours than men for less money. And yet, we’re all just supposed to keep striving.
“Think about who benefits from the ‘dream job’ construct: it is the people who are in power and who are determined to maintain the status quo,” offers Hellerer. “The really fantastic aspect of this myth is that most women who actually get the good-on-paper ‘dream job’ that they've worked so long and hard for only to find that it is completely unfulfilling and not a dream at all, will conclude that the problem is not the role just being a wrong fit, or the system that creates workplaces that aren't meant for her success, or the social programming that she's been taught, but rather her. This, in turn, will have her doubting herself, her intuition, her ambition, her potential and her value, which keep her ‘playing small’ and self-limiting and accepting less.”
So, is it possible to eschew the concept of the dream job while still aspiring to work that is interesting and meaningful, if not our primary source of fulfillment? “My new point of view is I have no dream job, I just evaluate what I liked and didn’t like in my past roles and try to do more or less of those things,” says Dana, 28, who works in communications in New York. She adds: “It should be a crime to ask someone where they want to be in five years.”
Career expert Alison Green of the blog Ask A Manager says that it may be helpful to re-conceptualize what makes a job dreamy. Perhaps it’s not about working for a big-name company, having a fancy title, or getting lots of perks, but being somewhere that gives you flexibility, or just makes you feel valued. “Sometimes, a job that you didn’t think would be anything special turns out to feel like a dream job once you’ve been in it for a while — if the company treats people well, the manager and coworkers are great, and the work is fulfilling,” she explains. Many young job hunters seem to already be heeding this advice: A 2018 report from Pentegra notes that what millennials (and probably also Gen Z) want most from jobs isn’t necessarily a high salary, but flexible hours, the ability to work remote, and plenty of feedback on their performance.
Ridding ourselves of the notion that any form of labor will ever be dream-like is liberating. It allows us to finally imagine the other things we want and need it to be, and more importantly, to advocate for them without feeling like we’re being ungrateful. And while we’re at it, it might be worth re-examining all those old movies that gave us such strange and unrealistic expectations about the working world. After all, if you can’t recognize how miserable you are at work without, say, being miraculously possessed by your 13-year-old self or conning a guy into breaking up with you for a story — or whatever happened to your favorite rom-com character on her way to the top — then perhaps your professional life is actually not something we should aspire to.