Dear Prudence

Help! I Finally Got a Perfect Job, and I’m Still Unhappy.

Each week, Prudie discusses a tricky letter with a colleague or friend, just for Slate Plus members. This week Jenée Desmond-Harris discusses her response to “Lost Twentysomething” with fellow Slate writer (and also her husband) Joel Anderson.

Dear Prudence,

Is it normal to feel this dissatisfied with your career and job of choice? I’m in my mid-20s and have steadily climbed the ranks of my chosen field since graduating college. At every internship and job, I’ve always felt a baseline level of dissatisfaction with the work but have always brushed it off as just a symptom of not being in the exact role I want or not doing exactly what it is I want to be doing in the field. (These days I’m not so sure what that even is.) Except, now I’ve got a new job and it’s leaps and bounds ahead of my last company. The work is creative and it’s a good name on paper. The job is enviable! Yet I still feel dissatisfied. I try not to complain about it and instead remind myself to be grateful that I’m employed and am doing what I worked so hard to do. But I still feel this gnawing feeling that something’s off, that I could be doing something more fulfilling with my 40 hours a week, and that all the work I’ve put into getting to this position was fruitless. Is this just what it’s like to have a job and be an adult?

—Lost Twentysomething

Read Prudie’s original response to this letter.

Jenée Desmond-Harris: I honestly don’t know what’s better: Attaching a lot of meaning to your job only to risk having it all ruined by a bad manager or layoff, or just doing work in exchange for money and finding other things to be excited about and satisfied by.

Joel Anderson: That’s the rub, isn’t it? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with deriving a lot of pride and meaning out of work, but jobs are always more tenuous than you think. Maybe there’s a layoff. Maybe your favorite manager takes a job somewhere elsewhere and they’re replaced with a malevolent asshole. Maybe your job description changes and now you’re just making widgets.

So it’s good that, at 27, the LW is reevaluating their relationship with work. Because trust two people who know: The way you feel about your job today is bound to change, often because of things totally beyond your control.

Jenée: I’m actually surprised that a mid-20s person feels this way. Massive, unfair sweeping generalization incoming: I feel like Gen Z attaches absolutely no value to work. And it’s honestly inspiring!

Joel: Hey, they’re better than us in this regard: They figured out that this is all a scam, investing your whole damn life into a place that will eliminate your job tomorrow because the shareholders want a new vacation house. But also: You sound like a Boomer or a Republican (or both), complaining about the lazy youth who don’t know the value of an honest day’s work!

Jenée: Actually, let me correct myself. I’m thinking this through and it does line up with the letter. Still a huge generalization, but I feel like Gen Z people in professional settings expect work to make them happy. Like they are there to feel fulfilled. And if it doesn’t make them happy, they’re not doing it! Again, I am not being an old critical Republican. I love it! We could all learn a lot from them. But thinking that way also puts you in a position where you might have a crisis if work isn’t filling you up at all.

Joel: Right. And hey, while I wish the LW felt a little more fulfilled, it’s great to have this revelation now. In some ways, I think it hits all of us at about that age. So now, what to do about it? I wonder if we’re gonna say the same thing: Start investing a lot more of their energy into their life outside of work, whether that’s family and friends or hobbies that make them feel good.

Jenée: Yep, I think that’s a good idea. I would encourage the LW to think about whether they’re unsatisfied with WORK or unsatisfied with LIFE. Like yes, we work at least eight hours a day. That’s a lot of time. But could they decrease the pressure on work by finding other sources of satisfaction. And I’m not just talking about brunch with friends. I think things that take effort like political activism or volunteering might scratch that itch. Bonus: You’re much less likely to get laid off. You can do these things forever if you want.

Joel: Yup. It’s just a good idea to start building out the other parts of your life away from the office. Because those are the things that have staying power. You can always turn to your bestie or the golf course or video games when work sucks. But if you give all of yourself to work, then you’re setting yourself up to be totally gutted when work fails you. And trust me on this: No matter how good your job, no matter how nice your co-workers, no matter how much money you make, it will change, and you have little control on if it’ll be better or worse. So push away from the desk while you can and go touch grass, LW.

Jenée: It’s okay to look for a more fulfilling job. But in this economy, if you’re stable and working for decent people and not super stressed, I don’t know—here I go sounding 100 years old again—I think it would be great if you could find a way to be excited and appreciative about that. And stay put.

Joel: Absolutely. Here’s me being the old fogey now: Just be grateful you’ve got an “enviable” job and that it looks good on LinkedIn. In this economy??? If you can do better someday, great. But it probably won’t last, so just appreciate it.

Jenée: As hard as we tried on this response, it’s making me realize Slate needs a Gen Z advice columnist. Someone like my cousin who graduated with a 4.3 and a business degree and went to work for an influencer instead of taking a job in finance. We don’t understand her but we respect that she’s very likely on to something. And she’s happy! Anyway, LW, right now “Hey stop feeling that way” is the best the two of us can do. Good luck!