“Work Martyr" — The New Millennial Badge of Honor

|| Graphic by Bernadette Berdychowski

|| Graphic by Bernadette Berdychowski

The opinions reflected in this OpEd are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of staff, faculty and students of The King's College.


“I haven’t had chance to grab breakfast yet, and honestly I probably won’t be able to get to lunch either,” I’ve said more times than I can count.

As a college senior taking 19 credits to graduate early, working nearly 20 hours a week, acting as president of a campus organization and attempting to do as much freelancing as possible, sleep deprivation, overworking and I are all very well acquainted.

“Yeah, I only slept three hours last night,” I’d say, feigning a frustrated face as I roll my eyes and add a “huff” for effect. But the horrible truth is that I’m not frustrated (or at least not primarily) — I’m proud.

For 48 percent of millennials, being exhausted and overworked is not something to mask — it’s an outright badge of honor.

According to a survey by Project:Time Off and GfK in 2016, 40 percent of millennials comprised what was called the “work martyr” category - and even more were proud to be included. Forbes reported in 2017 that among the themes the survey touched on were beliefs that “I don’t want others to think I am replaceable” and “I feel guilty for using my paid time off.”

Additionally, some 27 percent of millennials felt guilty for taking paid time off, according to the survey — compared to only 12  percent of baby boomers.

As much as I grimace to admit it, I find myself in this category.

While the physical toll of averaging three hours of sleep a night or skipping breakfast to get to a meeting on time may be formidable, I’ve noticed myself getting an inordinate amount of satisfaction from the response to my woes. And I’m not alone.

“I’ve slept maybe five hours in the past two days?” is something I’ve heard so many of my peers say — their weary eyes brimming with an all-too-familiar pride that I’d felt saying the same thing before. Colleagues have bragged about finishing work projects at 1:00 a.m., and I myself have been active on my company’s Slack channel long into the wee hours of the night.

And while the bragging may come blanketed in a complaint, we all seem to understand each other — the more you work or the more tired you are, the more dedicated and admirable you are.

But, why are we so keen on letting everyone know we work ourselves half to death? Well, for me personally (and recent studies claim I’m not alone), I feel more pressure than ever to land the perfect job — and look like I’m killing myself to do it.

While there are doubtless several contributing factors to why millennials (and even Gen Z) are feeling this way — from the threat of recession to the possibility of losing Social Security as a safety net for retirement — I personally feel the pressure of the stigma millennials have acquired — namely, that we’re lazy or unmotivated.

What’s more, realizing that there is more competition than ever for the best jobs, especially in a place like New York City, I’ve experienced even more anxiety over nailing down a job — bending over backwards to show my worth as a potential employee. And it seems as though my peers feel the same way.

“They have a stronger work ethic,” Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psychology professor and author of book “iGen,” told the Wall Street Journal in 2018. “They’re really scared that they’re not going to get the good job that everybody says they need to make it.”

I for one certainly relate to this impulse — seeing so many of my talented friends getting turned down for jobs they otherwise would be perfect for.

But our culture is also stimulating this unhealthy attitude.

Even the likes of serial entrepreneurs like Elon Musk tout the supposed benefits of workaholism — tweeting in November that Tesla wasn’t the easiest place to work, “but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” While Musk claims the hours you should be working “varies per person,” it is “about 80 sustained, peaking about 100 at times. Pain level increases exponentially above 80.”

The stress over getting a good job coupled with fears over a future recession obliterating our slowly-accumulating funds seems to be feeding into a generation-wide problem. According to an analysis in New York Magazine in 2016, anxiety among the younger generation is at an 80-year high.

And for me personally, I feel compelled to channel this anxiety into work.

Just a week ago I stayed over three hours late at work - long after 90 percent of our office lights had been turned off — to finish a project. My boss later messaged me, “oh my god, stop working so hard please” — to which I only felt a surge of pride and satisfaction bubbling up.

But it is clear that my generation has been programmed to think this way. In fact, Bernie Klinder, a consultant for a large tech company, told The New York Times in January via email that, “if your peers are competitive, working a ‘normal workweek’ will make you look like a slacker.”

Sure, working overtime or trying to impress your boss aren’t inherently bad things — and are in fact encouraged in many cases to bolster the ever-ambiguous image of a “strong work ethic.” But, where does that work ethic start to slide into dangerous territory? When does being anxious about work or school turn into an obsession to always appear malnourished, strung out on caffeine, or wholly exhausted in pursuit of wearing the “millennial badge of honor?”

Personally, I’m not sure.

But what I do know is that this problematic attitude has caused myself and my peers to push ourselves to the edge to appear to be the hardest-working generation. And we very well may be — but at what cost?