The following question came up during a conversation I had with a foreigner recently:
"So what do you and your friends do outside of work in Singapore?"
Before I hastily cobbled together a lame answer ("uhhh go out, watch shows, maybe read some books"), I found myself momentarily stuck, unable to answer.
Because, gosh, what do we do outside of work?
Instagram stories of sad millennial friends posting office-desk shots at 12am with a weary caption along the lines of "Still in the office :(" flash through my mind.
And the memories of friends cancelling on me at the last minute because they have to work late (hopefully those instances were indeed work and not because they hate me).
I'll admit I'm not too different. I obsessively check my email and work chats. And yes, I respond to them even if messages come in outside work hours — I do try to refrain from doing this during social gatherings or dates but sometimes, out of a terrible lack of mindfulness, I forget and then promptly apologise for being a horrible companion.
Oh no — have I become one of those no-life millennials who have become consumed by my job?
But this isn't just about responding to a work text at 11pm. I'm talking about a wider trend I'm seeing — and which indeed I'm part of — of millennials working longer hours.
According to a country-by-country comparison compiled by ManpowerGroup in 2016, Singapore millennials worked 48 hours a week, putting us joint-second with China and Mexico as the second-longest workweek experienced by millennials around the world.
But why do we do this?
I think it's because we feel like we have to.
A common refrain about this generation is that we don't know that we had it easy growing up, and now, as adults, we are constantly looking for the easy way out.
Say the word "millennial", and the image that often comes up is one of a bunch of young, idealistic fools looking to do a "meaningful" (whatever that means lmao) job without fixed nor long working hours, in an ultra-fun and vibrant office environment with beanbags, free food and multi-storey slides.
A bit like this:
But after thinking this through, especially in reconciling the reality I see of all of us working very long hours anyway, I really don't think that's exactly it — we aren't necessarily looking for an easy time and an easy life (although, let's be real, who wouldn't want that??).
What I've surmised is that all of us are looking for a feeling that we've done enough.
Perhaps it's the constant "strawberry" label, which amplifies our existing insecurities that we are indeed foolish, weak and generally lacking in resilience.
But at the core of it, I believe, is a terrible deep-seated insecurity that is plaguing my generation.
Seized by notions of productivity, we find it hard, and probably stressful, to take breaks.
We worry what people — our friends, family, colleagues, bosses, strangers even — think of us, and worry about our place in the world given a future that is looking increasingly uncertain.
The only certainty in life is uncertainty. And death.
Even when I'm not at the office, I find myself constantly thinking about work and my to-do list. It's like I am unable to flick a switch in my mind and [[initiate r e l a x a t i o n sequence]].
Of course I can't. I'm a human and not a robot. And as a very humanly human, I find it hard to switch off.
Because buried in my subconscious is a barrage of worries and 3am thoughts:
The world is developing at an alarmingly rapid pace. The cost of living is increasing. Job security is no longer a given (will robots become a more intelligent, efficient and remarkable version of Tanya one day?). Oh, and did I mention that the earth is likely dying?
Given all these uncertainties, it is perhaps inevitable that my generation feels even more anxiety towards our future, and what we are doing (or not doing, I guess).
If I were to describe it with a sh*tty metaphor, it's like I'm riding a bicycle. And the moment I stop pedalling I am surely going to tip over and hit the pavement, thus commencing my slow but inevitable decay as others whiz past me.
And hence, putting in the extra hours, after work or during weekends, is our sad, sad way of coping (read: overcompensating).
Of course, I think we do know that working longer hours (and working harder, in general) is not the only way to cope with our insecurities.
But we feel like it may very well be the best way to, purely because we are already spending the bulk of our waking life (eight hours a day, for those of us working in an office) at work. So why not, right?
Working so hard is an attempt for us to feel slightly better
I’m sure these fears aren’t unique to the millennial generation. But it is likely this manner that we’ve come to think about and approach our work that also sets us apart from our parents.
For them, work may have been seen as a means to an end — what you do in exchange for financial security, prospects, and tangible benefits that bring your family more material comforts.
For many of us young people who grew up with relative affluence (compared with our parents, at least), we are also increasingly seized by existential questions of what constitutes a life worth living, and what we are currently doing to get us where we want to be.
Somewhere along the way, we’ve learnt to see work as a measure of our self-worth and using it to carve out a meaningful life.
For myself in particular, working longer hours and volunteering to work outside of work hours have become two ways I feebly attempt at coping with feelings of guilt (and fear) that I am not doing enough with my life.
If I work harder, maybe I will feel like I am 'enough'. But how much is enough, really?
It will never be enough. That's right. I said it.
In our pursuit for meaning, we work long hours in an attempt to help ourselves feel better. But the longer we work, and the more pressure we put on ourselves, the more we feel like everything must surely be futile.
And our survival also at least in part hinges on us coming to terms with these contradictions.
By recognising that the only certainty in life is uncertainty, and that we just have to kind of roll with it somehow by finding a new normal or equilibrium in work (and life outside work) that is sustainable for ourselves.
It will take time. But at least we won't be alone in this effort.
Top photo by Herman, via Unsplash