Love in the Age of Millennial Discontent
Illustration by nuglybird for Rice.
“I feel like we’re at such different stages in our lives. I’m thinking about the future and trying to build a career but for you it’s like, it’s like you’re still growing up or something.”
This isn’t something that’s easy to hear or swallow. When you’re in your late 20s and this falls from the lips of the person you’re dating, it can prompt some serious introspection.
What am I doing with my life? Where am I going? How many jobs have I had in the past few years? What is wrong with me? How is anyone supposed to see a romantic future with me?
Things can escalate real fast, and before you know it, you’re crying into the pillow you’ve had for 18 years, begging it for forgiveness as you fall asleep at night. You’re calling all your exes and asking them where you went wrong. Maybe you go on a diet of pilates and boiled baby spinach, and start reading your way through xoJane’s list of 30 self-help books that will change your life.
A part of you wants to say to the pencil-skirted, sharply mascaraed dame you met on Coffee Meets Bagel, “Figuring out what you love or who you want to be is a process, and I’m doing my best.”
You want to say to the freshly laundered derivatives trader in his slim-fitted shirt and floral collar, “I’m not just some girl-boss-trophy-wife-wannabe. I hate being bored, and I actually want my work to mean something to me.”
Of course, job hopping happens for any number of reasons. Some knock about the same few related positions in a single industry, while others are compelled to envision a career in every little thing they’ve ever cared about. Criticisms of such behaviour abound; either you’re excessively fussy and incapable of commitment or you’re weak-willed and just not very good at anything.
In some instances, you have an over-inflated sense of who you are and what you’re destined for. In all cases, these opinions sound like dismissals of your romantic viability. Sometimes, the people who say these things are right.
But this is what we’re really here to talk about: how the ceaseless job hunt is pretty much the quintessential millennial condition. A lot of us have grown up in middle-income households, raised on a diet of the internet and a startup culture-esque philosophy that you can do anything you set your mind to. We have interests in everything from obscure musicians to predictive analytics and African literature.
With no need to pay for the roof over our heads, we have the luxury to experiment with jobs we think we might enjoy. We think we can do and be everything. We want meaning and purpose. We believe that the people we want to love should get this.
“I want to get married before I’m 28, and I need a guy who can afford that,” she might say.
At the same time, you live in a society where you know you should already have a career of some sort by your late twenties. We romanticise failure, but having been many things is no badge of honour. Unless, of course, those many things all happen to be successful, lucrative businesses.
Instead, you tried 2 years ago to become a chef. Shortly after, you worked in a bookstore for 6 months. Appalled at your paltry finances, you decided, at long last, to harness the clout of your hard-earned university degree. But you barely lasted 8 months in the civil service. Then you gave some startup venture thing a shot. Now you’re freelancing—really just code for swinging the odd graphic design gig while you bartend every other night.
At this point you can still remember how you’ve rationalised your way through life. But when the first guy you’ve dated in a year asks why you can’t just indulge your interests on the side, you struggle to explain why you don’t want to live some state-sanctioned dream of having just one stable job forever.
“I want to get married before I’m 28, and I need a guy who can afford that,” a lady might say. In the uncertainty of her voice: reservations about your ability to pander to her vision of what success is supposed to look like. You want to talk to her about being deeply unhappy at a job that doesn’t make sense, but you know that’s not what she wants. She looks at you, and she’s thinking that surely your quarter-life crisis must have ended by now.
They say to you, “It’s time to face reality and settle down. You’re not that young anymore.” They don’t want to find themselves tongue-tied when their friends boast of their partners’ promotions or having finally taken a house loan, reluctant to disclose your turbulent career situation.
For a while, maybe everyone you meet schools you with some variation of this ultimatum: Get your life together (stick with one job!) or be single forever (code for “I’m never going to date you”).
The thing about careers and the pursuit of them is that we all have some different, ill-defined idea of what they should be. Plenty of people are spat out of the halcyon, partying days of university and into the real world, and suddenly decide they want to make something of themselves. They grab the first finance or engineering job that comes along, and go on to careers that make little sense but offer them a bulwark against the misery of being broke. They finally get to be adults with strange, resolute ideas of how work and life are supposed to be.
Just as many find work they love, and become trail-blazing revolutionaries in their own right. Others lurch and stumble through jobs they feel indifferent about, and are content with the little things that bring them infinite joy.
work that means everything to us, if we can find it, can be better than love.
All of these are valid ways to live, and eventually, love blossoms between two people who appreciate the certainty and financial dependability of each other. When you’re always trying your hands at something new, your dates see nothing but teenage immaturity. It’s a preview of the irresponsible parent in you just waiting to slip up. What would have been relished as passion and spontaneity in your early twenties, is no longer permissible in your thirties. From the age of 29, nothing is sexier than stability.
In these situations, it’s easier than ever to mistake single hood for the promised land. Just stop trying to find someone, do what you love, and your work will inevitably lead you to the right person, right? Perhaps, in your singular determination to acquire career gratification, some meet-cute in a coffee shop will one day be your destiny.
Well, not exactly.
If you’re very lucky, the promise of the above will bring you eternal happiness and affection. But the reality is also that at 30, nearly everyone you meet will be engaged or married. For those still in search of a career, the biggest consolation is that you are doomed, at least for a while, to a life of flings and almost-maybes.
Younger folks will see themselves in you while older ones will wish they were still your age. They will enjoy, extremely superficially, what they see as your youthful frivolity. For a while, the fact that you are always trying something new will be truly exhilarating. But when they find out that your ambivalence is genuine, and that you are actually frustrated and looking for purposeful work, you can slide very quickly into becoming an uninspiring burden.
But if we can find it, work that means everything to us can be better than love. Plenty of single people lead deeply meaningful lives, and find in their own company something no one else can give them. Their journeys through the choppy waters of unlikely gigs have finally paid off in something they never expected to be brilliant at. Eventually, they lose their appetite for relationships.
Others manage to find people who love them for their ambitions. Their discontent and their inconsistencies are met with nothing but patience and understanding. If you’re a serial job hopper and you find someone like that, don’t do something stupid like letting that person go.