My response to a post on Reddit:
“I remember slaving away writing my undergraduate thesis for 9–10 hour days for weeks, setting my own schedule and taking breaks when I felt like it, making no money in the process, and feeling totally satisfied. Then I went to my first 9–5 job after graduation and my mental health fell off the rails. I honestly don’t know how people do it.”
I agree. I’m 23 and work as a software developer now and this is literally the exact same thing that happened to me. I was working 24/7 during my last 2 years of undergrad doing school work, tutoring, research, and taking online courses and it was the happiest time of my life! I’ve thought about this a lot and the reasons why I think this is the case is:
1) Purpose — 9–5 work just feels pointless. Everything I did in college seemed like it was working towards some big future goal that would improve the world. I worked and worked and always felt fulfilled because I knew what I was doing was moving me in the right direction. In 9–5 life, those distance goals are promotion, gaining experience, professional “cred”, and gaining connections, none of which I particularly feel are important or convincing.
2) Community — Being a student was great! You live close to your friends, and every day you’re going to meet fun, smart, happy people who are your age. In post-college life, people live all over, are less open to spending time with new people, and are less open in general to trying new things, making it harder to create new relationships. There’s also fewer systems in place to facilitate finding people with similar interests. In college there were all sorts of clubs where you were encouraged to develop interests and meet people. But in post-college life clubs (like sports clubs, for example) often have expensive membership fees, and members tend to show up less reliably, making it more difficult to form deeper relationships.
3) Powerlessness — You’re not in control, even though you believe you could do things better if you were. In college, like you said, you developed your own schedule. Same here. I went to class or didn’t, I did my work in bursts and took breaks when I needed them. And I got damn good results. Today, I work 9–5, despite the fact that I work better in bursts, and staring at code I’ve been stuck on for the past hour isn’t going to help solve the problem. Additionally, many people in my workplace often get blocked by other peoples’ work not being finished or even just not having work and sit there doing nothing. We can all parse out our time more efficiently except that we’re not allowed. There’s just a general feeling that things are unorganized and could be better if you were running the show, but you’re not.
Regarding point 1) I believe this is a personal problem, but I’m interested in whether other people experience it as well. However, I do believe out of the three this might be the most easily solved, in that it doesn’t require you to change society in order to solve it, just yourself. I think it just comes down to the fact I haven’t had the balls to use what I learned in college to change the world. I’ve done small things, like start meetups to solve issues that I thought were important, and doing personal projects for the same reasons, but I think the ultimate risk/reward that has to be sought after is replacing your would-be 9–5 work time and seeking (if you’ve lost touch with it) that thing that gives your life purpose. The thing is, despite the fact that not many of us can articulate it, our conscience, or soul, or whatever you want to call it, makes us FEEL when we’re following that purpose. It’s your job to follow that feeling and bring whatever good you have to offer to the world. And to be honest, I think the 9–5 work-life balance idea is just a copout answer for any kind of driven person, and that the only way to avoid that constant nagging feeling that somethings is wrong with the way we’re living that OP is presenting, is by working to fulfill that purpose. In the meantime, the reality of 9–5 can be a way to support that goal. I’ve had a serious back injury and no resources before, and I know that sometimes you need somewhere to plant your feet. But for those of you thinking about it, you should know that there are ten thousand people out there just waiting for that signal. So be the change. Don’t grow old and just accept the status quo.
About point 2), I think something great that’s happening is the rise of coworking and coliving spaces for adults, which gives us the communal aspect that many people, myself included, need. I work in a coworking space and it’s definitely saved me at times. When I first started my job I was super depressed about the state of things and meeting some of the people in my building and just finding people who were working hard to fix difficult problems in the world was very inspiring made me keep my head up. Also I lied earlier — the happiest time of my life was when I was doing a research internship one summer. All of us interns lived together in apartment-style dorms on an otherwise empty floor. We worked more than 40 hrs a week, but it was purposeful work, and we had complete control over of projects (we worked in teams), and the time we spent together outside of work made me feel like I had new family. It’s crazy how good life can be under the right circumstances. I think there are many many ways we can improve modern society to encourage better communities, we just have to try.
I think point 3) is mostly just the result of scaling large organizations. Sure, an organization of many people can make more progress towards a goal than one person, but any one person within that organization will be underutilized. It’s just a feature of organizations that sometimes you’ll need to relegate a decision to someone else or be blocked by bureaucracy, and so you’ll work more inefficiently than you would on your own. This is something that probably requires technical fixes to that I haven’t really thought through.
In anticipating certain responses along the lines of “well if you want to be (happy, successful, fulfilled) just do x y z!” Yes, it’s true personal responsibility has a role to play here (as I covered in point 1 details), but I think the important thing to discuss on public forums is what/how systematic changes can be implemented to improve the likelihood that people can succeed and be happy. Sure we’re all individuals but we live within a system — once you move beyond improving yourself to an acceptable point you must improve the system.