At this stage in his life, my dad bought a sports car and had flings with his secretaries. These clichéd behaviors offered a brief reprieve from the tedium of life in the suburbs with a wife and four kids. He also bemoaned his stable job that provided a consistent, livable income for his family. His boredom was palpable.
I, meanwhile, would kill to be so bored. Instead of indulging in luxurious purchases and trying to escape the pressures of parenthood, I’m about to spend somewhere between $30,000 and $1 billion just to have one kid via IVF. Rather than enjoying the stability of a consistent paycheck, I’ve been engaged in a nonstop fight-or-flight hustle as a freelancer. I have exactly no assets and a retirement account that might, if I'm lucky, see me through the last week of my life—pending inflation.
Sure, I have been able to eke by all these years, untethered by “the man,” and it hasn’t been all bad. But now, as I really need to settle into some semblance of security, my industry is in the throes of a full-scale collapse—and I am still struggling just as hard to get by now as I was in my early 20s. I prioritized work and ambition for a long time, and yet it feels like I have absolutely nothing to show for it.
I want to reclaim my time for the things in life that matter to me. I want to engage in a stable career that pays enough to live comfortably in these crazy times, and that contributes to the greater good in some meaningful way. I want to live differently than I’ve lived for the past 20 years. But when I try to problem-solve, or hustle, or… whatever my way through this crisis, all I feel is exhausted. I have nothing left to give, and yet I am sort of just starting out. Again.
The unbearable life fatigue of middle-aged millennials
While my personal story is unique, I’m not alone in entering into a “mid-life crisis” that looks nothing like the clichés of past generations.
Unlike our parents, a greater number of millennials (those of us born between 1981 and 1996) are entering this stage of life unmarried and as-of-yet childless. As of 2016, we were also earning 20 percent less than boomers did at our age. Inflation, meanwhile, is soaring, as are home prices—which have gone up by an eye-watering 50 percent since 2020. We’re also the generation that’s most likely to change jobs, and many of us are trapped in an exploitative gig economy. All of which likely has something to do with that aforementioned delay in getting married and having kids; those who are coupling up and procreating are doing so later and having fewer children than those in prior generations. Some are opting out entirely due to a combination of practical and existential concerns exacerbated by the pandemic and the impending doom of the climate crisis.
I am well behind on where I thought I’d be at this point in my life: a married homeowner with two kids and an acclaimed, stable writing career. This punishing reality has dealt a major blow to my self-esteem and, as a result, my happiness levels—and I can’t imagine I’m the only one of my generation who feels this way. Even if many of the circumstances that put us in this position are beyond our control, it doesn’t feel good to be pushing 40 as a renter with no savings.
I’m sure many folks of my parents’ age would roll their eyes at this essay, and find me entitled and lazy. The system worked for them, didn’t it? But that same system is objectively not working for younger generations, which has made many of us want to dismantle it or, at the very least, escape it. But how, when we are so very tired of climbing uphill with no peak in sight?
"A lot of people are no longer willing to sacrifice their joy and well-being, and they don’t want to put it off until later in life because they see the possibility of attaining it now." —Erica Lasan, Joy Strategist
Erica Lasan, a corporate "Joy Strategist" who has coached over 200 women, assures me I’m not alone in my feelings. “There’s been a huge shift, a cultural awakening, and millennials are seeking to redefine what success looks like,” she says. “A lot of people are no longer willing to sacrifice their joy and well-being, and they don’t want to put it off until later in life because they see the possibility of attaining it now—and it’s not guaranteed it will happen in retirement, if they get a retirement.”
Enter “life fatigue,” which Lasan describes as “reaching burnout in every area of life—emotionally, socially, spiritually, physically.” She says that for many people (myself included), they may feel like they’re doing everything they’re “supposed” to for success, yet “are feeling so drained that they can’t even see the way out.”
Lasan credits a combination of factors for this life fatigue in my generation, from a newfound sense of our mortality brought about by the pandemic and compounded by the approach of middle age, to a financial reality that’s stacked against us and may never allow us to relax—unless we make relaxation our goal.
“People, especially in the millennial generation, are starting to value their time,” she says. “Time is a resource. It’s not one you can replenish, and you don’t know how much of it you have. So people are trying to figure out how they can buy back their time.” Deloitte’s 2023 Gen Z and Millennial Survey found that while 62 percent of millennials say work is essential to their identities, most strive for work-life balance—and consider it a top consideration when looking for a new job. A 2022 Gallup survey also found that millennials are significantly more likely to look for remote work compared to older generations. “Young people crave career growth. They also want flexibility and independence,” the survey report reads.
Lasan says she’s also noticed a trend towards people prioritizing rest in a novel way, as evidenced by The Nap Ministry (created by Black activist Tricia Hersey and emphasizes the value of rest as “resistance” to our current racist, capitalist culture) and the growing #SoftLife trend (which has 944M views on TikTok).
“The idea of working hard to get what you want is something that, for a lot of us, has been passed down from past generations,” Lasan says. “You used to work really hard and be rewarded with either more money or a job with better benefits—you'd move up the corporate ladder so that you could have more financial security, which then leads to life security, and many in this generation find that that just hasn't been the case. So, they’re allowing themselves to reprioritize rest, and it’s become almost like a counterculture.”
Using joy to find purpose
Like many of my fellow millennials, I’ve already started slowing down and embracing rest. Rather than push myself to be productive every waking hour of my day, I listen to what my body needs. If I don’t feel like “doing”—and I don’t absolutely have “to do” something—I don’t. If I don’t feel like tackling my daily to-do list (outside of necessary paid work), I don’t. And those daily to-do lists have gotten a lot shorter, too, which allows me to do less and be more. But work had once given me such a sense of purpose. If I’m doing less in the way of work…where would my purpose come from in life? How would I still find meaning?
It was this question which really led me to seek out Lasan. Her answer was unsurprising, given her title: Pursue joy.
From Lasan’s perspective, joy is a tool you can use to inform how and what you show up for in life. “The thing that brings you joy is tied to your purpose, so if you're able to get a clearer picture on what that is, you can use it to hone in on what you’re supposed to be doing with your time, energy, and space,” she says.
In other words, I just need to identify the activities that bring me joy and do more of them, which should organically lead to a greater sense of what I should be doing with my life overall.
Part of the problem, I tell Lasan, is that I always found both joy and purpose in writing, and now I find neither. She responds that this is likely due to the fact that I’ve been writing for money and not for joy. “It could be that in the years that you have been doing it for money, it hasn't actually been serving the purpose or serving the passion," she says.
She suggests taking a step back and trying to remember why I loved writing so much, what it was about writing that brought me so much joy, and then considering how writing might be tied to my purpose—then seeing if there's a way back to that writing. “When you begin to get clear on what your joy is, you can also begin to understand how you can leverage it to build the financial abundance that you want,” she says.
No, I don’t need to quit my job right now in pursuit of joy. But she suggests I find time to play around with the type of writing I would do even if no one was paying me. Sure, I may find that no form of writing brings me joy anymore. Or I may discover that the type of writing that brings me joy is different from the kind I do for money (writing for magazines), or even the kind I thought could be for joy (writing a book).
[Success is] not necessarily owning a house, or selling a startup for $100 million, or even writing a book. It’s just living each day with the maximum amount of joy possible.
One way of going about this, which I've toyed with and Lasan supports, is switching careers so that the work I do to earn money does not require writing, which would ideally allow me to be re-energized around writing solely for creative fulfillment, or joy. In that setup, I could then experiment with various formats, like start a screenplay, enter a short-story-writing contest, draft a children's book, or even try my hand at poetry.
Lasan also encourages me to play around with other activities I love without putting any pressure on them to generate income for me. She refers to this as “snacking on joy bits.” She was excited to hear that I’d recently taken up sewing classes because I enjoy fashion and collect vintage clothing. The fact that I’m enjoying the classes is a clue, she says, and if I keep following and accumulating such clues, eventually a bigger picture will emerge.
Once I have that new vision—or really, at any point along the journey toward that vision—Lasan says it’s important to take the last step of recommitting to joy, and one thing she advises doing is sharing the vision with other people. “It holds you accountable to the vision, and it edifies the vision because the more you hear yourself say it, the more you see it for yourself,” she says. “It also helps you attract people that will support you in holding yourself accountable to that vision—I call this a vibe tribe.”
While I like the simplicity of Lasan’s joy-centric advice, it might have gone over my skeptical head were it not for one last little piece of wisdom she imparts before we end the call. She notices that I’ve described my fiancé as being less ambitious than I am because he’s designed his life to be low in stress and high in leisure time, and she corrects me. “It sounds like his ambition is joy,” she says. “And by that measure, he’s found great success. Joy is success.”
My mind is blown by this simple sentiment. She’s spot-on about how my fiancé defines success, and how I now realize I’d actually like to define success, too. It’s not necessarily owning a house, or selling a startup for $100m, or even writing a book. It’s just living each day with the maximum amount of joy possible. With that as my new goal, I feel somewhat energized for the first time in a long time. As I look down at the second half of my life from the top of this mid-life peak, things are finally looking up.
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