What's With The Millennial Cult Of Not Working?

By Gwen Farrell··  7 min read
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What's With The Millennial Cult Of Not Working?

I was scrolling through Instagram Reels recently, as I sometimes do (okay, more times a day than I’d care to admit) when I came across a girl presenting the following prompt: What’s something that’s not a cult but borderline seems like one?

The response, which was threaded to the original post by a different user, really surprised me – it was a young guy, probably in his late 20s or early 30s, who said the following: “98% of the US population thinks it’s normal to work a 9-5 for 50 years, just to get 10 years of freedom.” He even closed out his diatribe with an extremely condescending “make it make sense at least.” There’s a lot to unpack here, but first, what’s this cult of being proud of not working and/or looking down on employed people in traditional workplaces...and how did we get here?

I was actually glad to see that many commenters were noting and criticizing how tone deaf the overall message of the post was (so much so that the comments were eventually turned off). The reel was posted by an account called @passionateincome, a self-described finance advice page that advertises its “hustle mindset” posts as “helping entrepreneurs get to the top” and encourages users to “build their business empire.”

Now, I’m all for entrepreneurship. It’s one of the economic freedoms this country was built on, after all. But what is this holier-than-thou mindset which motivates people who quit their traditional 9-to-5s at age 26 to post clichéd “business” content on social media really all about?

If You Have a 9-to-5, You’re Oppressed

I’ve written before about the cringey “hustle” or girl-boss craze that somehow still seems to have a grip on much of our social media. To recap: the girl-boss craze encourages women  (though men are just as if not more susceptible to the “hustle and grind” attitude) to denigrate all of their friends and followers who make income the traditional way, as most of us do, and advertise mostly sketchy and shady secrets “to financial freedom.”

What we’re essentially looking at here is that mindset unashamedly in action, by someone who adheres to that hustle concept as an actual belief system, so much so that it colors the way they talk about the traditional American workforce which has existed for decades.

The overwhelming majority of Americans continue to work a 9 to 5 job (though obviously this data will evolve over time to include changes due to COVID), and Pew Research reports that most American workers (107.8 million people, or around 71%) are employed in service jobs, like trade, transportation, utilities, education, health, hospitality, and so on.

What bothers me is this attitude that you can somehow hustle or hack your way to a better life.

So it’s probably pretty safe to say that only a tiny percentage are actually trying out this apparent lifestyle advocated for by Mr. Know-It-All Finance Man from the above post, wherein you somehow quit your oppressive job, invest full time in your “financial freedom” or some other buzzword that’s frequently tossed around, and retire at 30 to travel the world and post about it full-time on social media.

Am I the only one here who thinks something seems a little off? First off, these kinds of narratives and agendas are more often than not tied to network marketing or multi-level marketing schemes, which if you don’t know already, are rife with issues as well as predatory and exploitative tactics. Secondly, it just feels disingenuous and insincere to see making a few dollars from social media as an excuse to bash one of the fundamental tenets of Western civilization.

Where the Heck Did This Mindset Come From? 

Well, folks, the Millennials are at it again. No, really.

By the year 2030, Millennials (the generation born between 1981 and 1996) will make up 75% of the American workforce. And while Millennials will argue that every generation complains about their failings and shortcomings, there’s considerable logic to back up this theory.

Author Simon Sinek bolsters this in his lecture “Millennials in the Workforce: A Generation of Weakness.” Millennials, generally raised in the environment of instant gratification, want work – but more than that, they want a profession, a career, a passion, a calling – which also happens to serve as their means of income. Millennials want to love what they do, but as most of us know, even on our best days we probably aren’t in love with our jobs. Sinek argues that Millennials are so concerned with making a real-world impact and receiving joy, praise, and total fulfillment in their jobs that it completely derails their professional lives.

Millennials want a career, a passion, a calling – which also happens to be their means of income. 

When that idealistic attitude eventually meets the grueling realities of our jobs and day-to-day employment, the inevitable happens. We’re not satisfied, we haven’t found joy or fulfillment in our lives. Eventually many of us realize that our jobs, no matter how much we may like them, are a series of monotonous days that may never result in the gratification we’re seeking. And while that’s unfortunate, it’s a realization many of us have come to at one time or another.

When these people don’t find that fulfillment, they quit in order to pursue their own rhetoric full time (resulting in the condescending lecture from Instagram that I mentioned earlier).

The Real Key to Financial Freedom

Many will argue that this attitude is a much-needed and even understandable response to the issues we’re confronted with: a tenuous economy, an astronomical housing market, rising costs, lower paying jobs, etc.

The fact is, though, people about to go into the workforce or those who haven’t been there long probably have no idea what they want their lives to look like 40 or 50 years down the line. They probably also have no concept of how to practically manage their money, or save and invest in order to achieve that goal.

People do retire early, in fact, long before the traditional age we normally think of. But that requires actual dedication and commitment to finance goals, and usually, a steady-paying 9 to 5 job. Retirement is the reward for a job well done – why would any of us jump toward retirement without actually having worked first? This means practical, sometimes difficult tasks like paying off debt, defining retirement goals, establishing and managing savings and investments (and keeping up with them for years at a time).

People do retire early – after paying off debt and managing savings and investments for years.

More than the practicalities of it though, what we should take issue with is the idea that people out there think they’re better than working, as if they’re somehow born above what our parents and ancestors have been doing for generations, or they somehow have the secret to having their cake and eating it too, like getting to retirement without all the hard stuff in the middle.

Working and employment is hard, but that doesn’t mean we throw in the towel because there’s no practical advantages (like money) or even enjoyment and satisfaction to be taken from it.

Closing Thoughts

I work a 9 to 5 office job, and maybe you do too. It’s part of being an adult, and having been unemployed during the pandemic, I can safely say that I’d much prefer to come to my job every morning than wake up and not know how I’m going to pay rent.

What bothers me is this attitude that seems to be more and more prevalent on social media, or the idea that you can somehow hustle or hack your way to a better life. But most of us know there are no shortcuts and no passing go to collect $200. Furthermore, there’s no shame in getting up every day and providing for your family. We’ve been doing it for years, and will likely continue to do it, even if employment or the traditional job is not the trend du jour.

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