Opinion

A millennial’s tryst with work and life

This article has been contributed by Nayanika Bhatia who is a designer and travel writer. She publishes her work and musings on www.storyland.co.

At my first job at the age of 21, I spent an entire year making a gradual & inevitable switch from “How did I land this hell of a job?!” to thinking “This job is hell.” So, what happened here? You’re going to learn all about it. In this essay of 5 acts, we will go deep into the modern Indian millennial’s work situation. The reason they are so dissatisfied with their jobs and astonishingly trigger-happy about quitting them. If you’re a millennial yourself, you might relate to this story and my hope is to help you find the path ahead. If you’re an employer or maybe a parent, this will help you understand what the next generation is looking for. 

Act 1 : Seeking Safe Houses

Everybody loves a safe house, because nobody likes uncertainty. In the Indian context, a safe house is basically anything that you’re engaged in that will keep people off your back about what you’re doing. A job or a study course or a period of preparation for something. The reason we’re making wrong decisions about our life is because we haven’t thought clearly about what we eventually want from life or from work. We also have this bad habit of running from uncertainty and into a safe house, till the point where our life only consists of hopping from one safe house to another. In our society, everyone seems to be very interested in the lives of others. Everyone who knows you would like to know what you’re doing. Funny thing is we actually care about how we’re perceived. About what’s being said about us. 

Let’s hear the all too familiar tale of Arush. 

When Arush was in school and college, his aim was : to perform well in his studies and come out prepared for the next stage of his life. He didn’t really think much of school & college. School was all about mugging things up and college too was disappointing. At first, he was genuinely interested, but by third year, it became just about the degree. ‘After this my real life will start!’, he thought. But, there were also days where he would think to himself – ‘Isn’t this a bit of a waste? 4 years in college and nothing interests me or adds much to my knowledge.’ When he graduated, it wasn’t long before he entered his next safe house. A secure job. His parents were happy. Everybody thought now Arush is onto to some good. But, the job….wasn’t what he expected. He wasn’t enjoying work and he was required to just keep sitting in one place. He had no time left for himself. He noticed that him and his flatmates were eating out way too much and he was drinking almost every weekend to distract himself from his pain. 6 months, 8 months. God, this is getting to be too much. Eventually, he leaves the job. He’s happy to be out of the job, but doesn’t know where to go next. He has some plans for himself, but isn’t too sure if his plans will take off. He doesn’t believe in his skills. Moreover, he’s back in his parent’s house and after his savings from the job run out, he’ll be dependent on them financially too. Everything is uncertain. Now he’s wondering whether the misery of the job was better than this uncertainty. Everyone keeps asking him what he intends to do next. 

Poor Arush.

But, in truth, more and more people are tracing the same journey these days. If they’re still in their early 20s and can afford it financially, they go to the next safe house, which is another educational course. ‘There’s still time,’ they say, ‘…let me learn some more skills while I still have time.’

Fast forward 2 years and we caught Arush for a quick conversation after his second course. 

“Graduated from your second course? Nice, man! That’ll look good on your CV.”

‘………’

He stays quiet. 

“Let me guess, that old uncertainty is back? Not sure where to next?”

‘Yeah.’ 

‘I guess it’s time for you to ask yourself some real questions.’

Act 2 : What Kind Of A Job  Life Do You Want?

When you work in a company, you get paid for the work you do for them. You get rewarded for the goals you help the company achieve. It isn’t surprising that in cases you don’t like the work you’re doing, you are going to feel used, drained and reduced to a machine. More and more people report back to be feeling this way. At a job, we want to work for goals and causes that matter to us, we want our humanity to be appreciated at a job.

This isn’t idealism. This is the search for a more sustainable model of work, where people aren’t jumping from job to job, while struggling with dissatisfaction, burn out and depression due to work. The problem is that we are taught to be willing to do anything as long as it gets you money. Take it from me, the ‘anything for money’ kind of deal, that is without a doubt going to be very unsatisfying kind of work. To find what you’d really like to be doing and how you’d really like to be living, you have to find the kind of work that you would be willing to do even if no one was paying you. I’m not saying stop expecting money for the work you do and you’ll be happy, but believe me there would be for you, as there is for everyone else, an activity or an expertise that would give you joy to share with the world. This is your magic. And when you figure that out, you are going to be more clear about the life you want to create. 

I graduated college some four years ago and I can relate a story to you from the time our placements were happening. During placements, the question we were asking ourselves while pursuing a job was : ‘How much do I want to earn?’; when the real question should have been ‘What kind of work do I want to be doing?’ There was such a buzz everywhere. Everyone discussing about the multi-lakh packages, the benefits and the perks. People would ooh and aah when they came to know that the highest paying employer is a bank offering a 15 lakh package. That kind of money for an undergraduate! There was only one person going to be chosen and everybody was excited. Eventually, a taciturn yet talented friend bagged the job. At that time, I congratulated him and expressed surprise at the large sum of money being paid to him. But, if I were to go back I’d ask him,

“Congrats, man. I wish you the best. But, I’d like to ask you one thing. You are such a gifted debater, an active member of the social service club, someone who has the potential to make some real change. Do you think all your talent would really be put to good use selling platinum credit cards to high net-worth individuals?”

I wonder what he would’ve replied and whether he’s still working with them. 

Act 3 : Work Values

If I were to tell you my personal experience of working in corporate, it would probably not even qualify as hellish, compared to some of the real tales of trauma that I’ve heard from others. We came in to work at 11, had constant access to a Playstation and foosball table, spent a lot of time watching movies because we were in the movie business and hell, (the good kind!) they even took us to Europe on a cruise free of cost. 

And yet I felt suffocated. If you had asked me then, what made me dislike my work so intensely, I would not have been able to give you an exact answer. And usually people who leave their jobs (The millennial average is of jumping three jobs in 5 years) would also be hard-pressed to give you exact reasons about their discontent. But, I’ve done some thinking and here is what I came upon. I didn’t like my job because it didn’t align with my work values.

Work values are beliefs and attitudes relating to your work. They’re an important part of who you are and determine the way you prefer working. You may prefer being autonomous or you may appreciate guidance while working. You may value personal achievement or you may value collective growth. It differs from person-to-person. I took some time out to list my work values.

Nayanika’s Work Values

  1. It should fuel my sense of wonder everyday
  2. It should give me a chance to explore my abilities and work on my weaknesses
  3. It should let me use my creativity
  4. It should help me make a positive contribution to the world
  5. It should not adversely affect my health
  6. It should help me connect with other like-minded people and be of service to the world at large

And with this, it is clear to see why my work didn’t satisfy me. Listing it down also gives me a place to start searching. What is the kind of work that fuels sense of wonder? Or helps me make a contribution to the world?

Act 4 : The Discovery Stage That We Skipped Over

Welcome to the Discovery Stage. When your parents go, ‘Okay, fine. You’ve left a sensible, well paying opportunity. What do you intend to do now?’ And then you fumble and usually have no answer to give, following which they bus you off to another safe house. Well, the reason you’re so out of touch with what you’d like to do is because no one gave a shit about what you liked when they were training you for a professional career. You have to address this fundamental discontent, otherwise you’ll keep jumping from job to job without ever knowing why you’re unhappy. When you listed your values, I’m sure certain ideas must have flitted through your head. Enjoy connecting with people and also like food? Maybe you’d like to give the food business a shot. Always liked telling stories? Maybe you should sit and try writing some down. 

The idea in the discovery stage is to be curious, hopeful and also practical. Yes, you should give that thing that has been calling out to you a shot, be it calligraphy or golfing or baking. See if it works for you. Give yourself a month to just live an alternate life doing what you dream of doing. But, remember to be practical, notice how you’re doing at it and try not to put all your eggs in one basket. 

I’ll share an example from my own life. Two years ago, I was really done with city life. I wanted to run away, live in the village, grow my own food and just become a farmer. Quarter life crisis at its best, isn’t it? So, I started by doing my research and challenged myself – ‘Okay, you say you want it. You should stop complaining and go live it, then.’ So, I found places where I could go and do farming and live the village life. I went to a farm in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu and spent 2 weeks there, learning organic farming and doing hard farm labour every day. It was different, enjoyable and I learned so much from my time there. But, I came back with a realization. I didn’t want to become a farmer. Not for the rest of my life. 

Which is not to say this experience was a waste of time. This was an urgent and necessary experience which is exactly what I needed. It showed me how I’d like to live and motivated me to keep up with my search for ‘my kind of life.’ I saw the effect simple living and good food has on our overall well-being. I learned to appreciate a way of life different from my urban one, the way nearly 70% of Indians live. It gave me a taste of experiential travelling, which brought me closer to a local culture than I’d ever been before. As a writer and traveller, this way of travelling continues to be the one that makes me feel most alive and satisfied with my work. 

Act 5 : Your Beautiful Potential

I think you’re happiest with your work when you feel like you’re fulfilling your potential. And how often does that happen? You may not be aware of this, but each one of us is capable of doing great things. A human being is a mix of the corporeal and the sublime, the animal and the divine. Although, our bodies are delicate and vulnerable, exposed to disease and death, but there is a part of us, whatever you would like to call it – our will, our spirit, our mind, that is capable of god-like things. I believe that the biggest trouble with the industrial complex and the education system is that it is so focused on fulfilling its own economic ends that it has never tried to develop the greatness inside human beings. Instead, it has always encouraged our meekness, our ability to be controlled, to be manipulated and to give in to our fears.

Through my own journey I am aware that it was my initial discontent with my work, of trying to fit into the system that has pointed me to a much better path. If I had not experienced that pain, I would have simply stayed behind. Spending decades in the office system, serving god knows what ends. I would never have been forced to dig deep and to find all the talents that I’ve discovered later in myself. So, I’d like to end with this. If you’re unhappy and confused, know that your journey is beginning. Keep the following in mind while on this path :

  1. Don’t be afraid of uncertainty. It’s okay to stay away from safe houses.
  2. Start with your work values
  3. Explore your interests
  4. Believe in your potential to do something big! 

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