Why Young People Can’t Be Happy at Their Jobs

Are you fed up with a crappy job you hate? It might be because your boss is a terrible communicator, and you’re left filling in the blanks. Or maybe you’re trying to make the best of a bad work situation, but you’re still tempted to quit every day. There are a myriad of reasons why you might not be completely happy with your work — and your life in general — but a recent study shows that you have more power over that than you might think. Sure, your paycheck and your boss’s Cruella-esque tendencies are out of your control. But what you do in the hours you’re not in the office can make all the difference.

This is especially true if you fall into the “millennial” age group, at this point having graduated from college but younger than 35. An observational study from Happify, a company that blends science and technology for promoting happier, more fulfilling lives, found that the way young people spend their time and mental energy outside of work might be part of the reason why they tend to be more unhappy than their older colleagues.

Millennials and the quarter-life crisis

Cat with open mouth showing its teeth

Unhappy cat | Source: iStock

The basis of the study from Happify assumes that the quarter-life crisis is indeed a reality for many millennials. It’s referred to as an “early adult crisis” by researchers in the Journal of Adult Development, and can affect young adults typically between the ages of 25 and 35. “Crises are emotionally volatile, stress-inducing, time-limited episodes during which a person moves out of an existing life structure and towards a new one,” the study’s authors write. The study goes on to explain characteristics of these events: 

They are all-consuming events that occur at multiple levels: at the physical level, a person may experience major changes in physical location and biological symptoms of stress; at the psychological level, a person may question their own beliefs or sense of self; at the interpersonal level, crises frequently involve changes in roles and relationships; and at the sociocultural level, crises often involve a re-evaluation of social roles, social identity, and social norms.
Researchers state that ultimately, finding a way to get through these crises can boost confidence and eventually lead to a more dynamic adult life. However, the interim can be extremely stressful. A recent college graduate might find themselves moving across the country for a new job, or two young people might get married and have their social norms shift as they adjust to married life. Whatever the change, scientists acknowledge that all young people are susceptible to these crises, just like adolescents and middle-aged adults go through life transitions.

Why millennials aren’t happy at work

not happy at work, tired man in office in front of laptop

Unhappy at work | Source: iStock

The quarter-life crisis can affect every generation, but we’re now in the time where millennials are experiencing this phenomenon the most. However, they’re largely focused on different priorities than their older generations were, which could be leading to additional unhappiness at work and in their lives overall.

Are millennials the bunch of lazy, self-absorbed, entitled whiners they’re made out to be? We’ve already seen some evidence to the contrary, and the analysis from Happify suggests the complete opposite. If anything, young people are a little too consumed with their work, and aren’t thinking about the other aspects of life that can help them cope through a quarter-life crisis. Instead, they’re unwittingly making their situation worse, and ignoring the mechanisms that have helped other generations move through crises faster.

“What we found is that Millennials are obsessed with their jobs, socialize with friends less often than many older folks assume, and don’t seem to set much store in developing a spiritual life,” writes Ran Zilca, the chief data science officer at Happify. The Happify team used an algorithm to track the word choices and priorities of more than 250,000 users on the Happify app. More than 12 million words were codified into topics, and the most popular topics were compared between age groups. In addition, those topics were broken out according to what generations value, what their long-term goals center around, and the short-term strategies they plan to use to get there.

Millennials vs. older generations: connections make a difference

young woman sitting beside the wall

Not having personal connections can be a hindrance | Source: iStock

The underlying reason so many millennials are unhappy in their jobs right now is that many of them are dealing with the stresses of major life changes. However, that’s compounded by the fact that millennials eschew many of the connections and relationships outside of work that make those changes bearable. Instead, they’re mainly focused on their jobs and careers, even when they’re not in the office. According to Zilca, this is what the Happify study found:

  • When asked what they’re grateful for, older generations responded with items like, “spending quality time with family and friends.” For millennials, the answers were more likely related to work. “Having a low-stress commute,” “Getting a new job,” and “Being satisfied with an existing job” were all top answers.
  • “Religious events” and “friends and family” were uncommon answers for millennials, but were popular among other age groups. Millennials tend to have very little interest in spiritual matters, or believe that religion and family time are meant for when they’re older — after a career is established.
  • When it came to long-term goals, young people were more likely to choose job-related goals as well, such as starting a new career or establishing a better work-life balance. Getting fit and reducing worry were also top of mind.
  • “Stop worrying” and “Apply for a job” were also short-term goals of many millennials.

“This suggests Millennials are stressed and worried (and aware of it), and are occupied with getting a great job and going about it in a way that is conscientious and organized, unafraid of pushing the envelope and facing challenges,” Zilca said. “Looking at both long-term and short-term goals, we see a clear job focus and an attempt to address worry and stress.”

By Zilca’s own conclusions, older generations seem to be much more at ease with their life station, and their satisfaction in all areas, including their jobs. We might chalk this up to post-college angst, but Zilca believes that thinking about work compulsively, along with other relational factors, could be what’s holding millennials back from being satisfied with their lives. It might not be a cure-all to visit family more often or organize a weekly dinner with close friends, but it could be a start to making work seem less terrible.

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