We Are Overly Pampered and Overworked

It's hard to take anyone seriously who complains about their lack of "work-life balance" before sauntering into the office kitchen for a cool beer from the fridge. But there is no question that while we lucky few grads with a job are likely to be over-indulged, we are also undeniably overworked.
07/12/2013 03:47 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2013

Talk to any recent college grad about their job prospects or career ambitions and the conversation will likely revolve around fulfillment. Young 20-somethings, fresh out of school, are desperate for employment, but not yet desperate enough to settle for any old job. Gone are the days of finding a "job that pays the bills," replaced by the modern quest for a "career that is fulfilling," likely undertaken from a perch in the parents' house.

In his book, How We Got Here: The 70s The Decade That Brought You Modern Life -- For Better Or Worse, David Frum fittingly explores how we got to this post-industrial service economy that values self-expression over financial security. "The old work ethic," says Frum, "was replaced by a new work ethic, in which one worked to fulfill oneself rather than to support others."

And here we are. This notion of employment providing individual fulfillment is a pervasive idea among young 20-somethings. Careers ought to be purposeful, defining of values, stimulating of young minds and -- most importantly -- fun. Despite a reluctance to, you know, actually hire many of these jobless young people, employers have ultimately obliged them.

At the emergence of this new work ethic, free sodas in the company fridge and sporadic office happy hours were reasonable perks, offered by employers to keep their white-collared workers happy while simultaneously attracting new "talent," as they say. But now, with companies going as far as to offer mini-golf, rock climbing walls, waffle machines and even nap nooks in the office, soda and happy hours on the boss' tab are considered merely lackluster staples.

Last month, in her New York Times editorial, "The Calorie-Packed Perk," Molly Young painstakingly detailed the "free lunches and self-replenishing pantries" enjoyed by many young 20-somethings in hip new offices around the country. Eating free fro-yo while playing ping-pong with your boss in the employee lounge doesn't sound so bad, does it?

But, despite this indulgent fixation on personal fulfillment and office funtivities, Americans can't stop complaining about how "overworked" we are. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Robert J. Samuelson laments that Americans "seem to have a harder time than other peoples in distancing ourselves from work." We are, after all, the only country in the industrialized world not to guarantee paid vacation. And, thanks to work cell phones and remote teleconferencing, "we are reachable at almost any time in almost any place."

The most viral of these editorials bemoaning our overworked, tech-frenzied existence no doubt remains to be "The Busy Trap," published last summer in the New York Times. Employees across the country basically wallpapered their glass-plated offices with this indulgent screed, insisting that the late-night teleconferences and overwhelming barrage of emails need to stop. And, you know what? Maybe they do. It certainly can't be healthy to take a conference call while weaving through rush hour traffic, or to wake up at 5 a.m., before the day really gets going, just to get a head start on those emails that piled up overnight.

Just as the line workers of the early-to-mid-19th century faced a threatening factory environment, chockfull of machines that could slice off a limb with one unfortunate slip, we, too, face our own modern, workplace demons. The thing is, those factory workers didn't expect their job to be anything more than that: a job. It's pretty hard to derive romantic notions of self-fulfillment from assembling a piece of poorly manufactured merchandise in an overcrowded, sweaty cement box.

Perhaps now it is precisely our insistence that we ought to be fulfilled by a career that renders us so disillusioned by our jobs.

As is storied tradition, today's older generations delight in castigating us younger folk for being void of morals and unappreciative of hard work. Perhaps we are. After all, it's hard to take anyone seriously who complains about their lack of "work-life balance" before sauntering into the office kitchen for a cool beer from the fridge. But there is no question that while we lucky few grads with a job are likely to be over-indulged, we are also undeniably overworked.

We may now busy ourselves from 9 to 5 in offices that boast of such luxuries as free fro-yo and foie gras fountains, but unlike the presumably "unfulfilled" factory workers of a bygone era, our workday does not end when we leave the brick and mortar office.