A college student’s response to hustle culture

Why do our "unattainable"goals keep us wired?

I recently came across an article in the New York Times that stopped me at its headline: “Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?”

Admittedly, I consider myself a young person who enjoys working. Not always the work itself but the feeling of working in general. More than once I have bragged about how little sleep I got the previous night, and I have probably described the organization of my Google calendar on multiple occasions as “baller,” or “sexy.” Was this bragging? Perhaps. Pretending? I didn’t think so.

So, feeling appropriately “triggered,” I opted to read.  

What followed was a harsh, but necessary message that I encourage anyone my age – especially you workaholics – to consider.

If anything, the article shines a sober light on a reality many in my generation face and maybe even feel is inescapable. At the University of Southern California, the motto “work hard, play hard” is the law of the land. Students are just as likely to go out and party until 2 a.m. as they are to check in for an interview the next morning, with the lofty assumption that they’ll get the job regardless. And most of the time, they’re right.

That’s the appeal of hustle culture. It’s round-the-clock action, success and domination in the modern era. Like if Genghis Khan was woke and wore Air Pods.

“I agree with so much of [the article] – especially the idea that we are almost replacing religion with work in our effort to find meaning and belonging in the world,” he said.

It’s not surprising then that we, a generation raised under the microscopes of digital self-promotion and unprecedented parental guidance, feel the constant need for self-affirmation. We must be productive enough, have the longest LinkedIn bio and must speak more languages than the child of a diplomat. Why? Because someone else our age already does. It’s like a Cold War arms race of skills and experiences you can slap onto a resume.

This isn’t just me speaking, either. Jay Sridharan, a freshman at USC studying engineering, echoed this when we discussed the article over text.

“I agree with so much of [the article] – especially the idea that we are almost replacing religion with work in our effort to find meaning and belonging in the world,” he said. “But at the same time… I don’t think I would stop working as hard, even though it stresses me out sometimes. It seems like my goals are unattainable without the time I currently invest,” he added.

Here is where we find ourselves in predicament – namely, that we will take any job that is offered to us because it feeds into that necessity. Our ambition needs nourishment, and if you throw it a nice T-bone steak of written accolades, we will gobble it up and ask for more. Why else would there be a spike not only in meaningless jobs, but people who are willing to take them?

This all sounds very self-critical, and I don’t mean to be some kind of third-eye looking down on my peers who knows any better. I, too, believe I am wired this way. I’ve heard that voice in the back of my head whenever I take a moment to chill or enjoy something for the fun of it. It tells me I should be working instead, that I must rationalize my moments of relaxation as something that contributes to my overall productivity as an individual. I go to the gym, because it will clear my brain to think better when I’m working. I’m watching this movie, because I believe it will inspire me to make my own or write an amazing script. 

What perhaps is most troublesome, however, is something I realized after reading this article and a similar one on BuzzFeed that also broke the internet (surprising PAPER Magazine didn’t jump on this): As young people, we are alone. The need of constantly working for the purpose of sheer self-achievement and -promotion seems to be a broadly accepted mindset that is limited to us millennials and members of Generation Z.  

I tested this hypothesis by sending the aforementioned articles to my parents. Their abridged responses are as follows:

Dad: Feels a bit overblown to me. You should do what you care about, but it’s never at the exclusion of everything else. As always life is about balance and whether people admit it or not, luck always plays a role…. Otherwise you’re just spending your life looking over your shoulder, and that is miserable.

Mom: What a great article, Dan. I found it very true and sad…. Thanks for sending it.

Both of these responses are valuable. They acknowledge the importance of holding up happiness as a goal in itself as well as the dangers of being overly invested in one’s productivity and work. Indeed, they echo past advice they have given me about stress management and my own necessity to constantly be at the grindstone.

But they also show a clear truth: We are not wired the same.

I, and I know many of my peers, would look at my father’s advice and agree in philosophy but not in practice. Yes, of course we need to think about our health. #Selfcare. But if we had to balance life with work, that means we would be dedicating less time to our work than someone else. Our spot would then be taken.

Suddenly, the dream we chase of reaching some ethereal state of constant achievement and, somehow, contentment vanishes. We would have to settle for something *gasp* less than being the next Neil Armstrong, Clare Boothe Luce or Leonardo da Vinci. Then what are we left with? A husband or wife, some kids and a two-story house with a car and a white picket fence? That’s not success – at least not how we’ve been trained to envision it.

All of a sudden, we would have to confront something that our generation has been avoiding: We might not be extraordinary or even special. Posting our latest internship as a Facebook job update wouldn’t change that nor would being held back an extra year in preschool to best your classmates in hockey. Where else, then, are we to find happiness? The answer feels unknown.

It is truly a vicious cycle and one that I don’t know if we will get out of. Maybe Jordan Peele will make a sequel out of it. But in all seriousness, some major societal shift would have to occur for us to think that something other than supreme levels of achievement could make us happy. What that shift entails, I have no clue.

The sad truth is I think my generation does heed the message, “Do what you love.” We just convince ourselves that what we “love” is whatever work we can get our hands on. This could be born out of socioeconomic status, our upbringing, social media or all three combined. Whether or not this comes to affect us in our later years of life, when we are further down the rat race and deeper in self-reflection, is the question.

I’m curious to see what we think of our youthful ambition when that time comes. I hope it isn’t filled with regrets but rationalizations. We had to think that way. How could we have survived otherwise? We wouldn’t have been successful. We wouldn’t have been happy.

Categories: Campus, Culture, Identity | Tagged , , .

Top image: Photo Illustration: Heran Mamo/Neon

Dan Toomey is a junior studying journalism. He was one of the managing editors of USC Annenberg Media.