Help, the World’s a Mess

Why Gen-Z and Millennials’ mid-life crises are starting to hit so hard.

By Natalie Keenan

Each generation has their own unique set of socioeconomic and environmental challenges, and those faced by Generation Z and Millennials have been a long time coming. Australian young people are facing a nasty concoction of systemic dilemmas, leaving Gen-Z and Millennials to juggle work, study and domestic duties. This has created a recipe for mass burnout. Luckily, as we confront these issues and start to seriously consider the facets of wellbeing, we discover how collective action might be our way out.

So what’s our situation? Currently, a 38-hour workweek is considered the norm for full-time workers in Australia. It’s not something to complain about—we’re all managing, right? Well, if we look a few decades back, we notice that this workweek is just another social construct that we forget to evaluate, not some law of human nature.

This approximate work-life balance has been around long enough (early 1900s) that we no longer bat an eye. However, this means that it’s easy to forget how it has interacted with other social changes since then.

In the 1970s, for example, there was a drastic increase in the amount of married women working. Before this, the nuclear family structure often involved wives staying at home, carrying out all domestic labour. Interestingly enough, it was also around the late 1970s that there were further movements to reduce the typical hours in a working week – what a coincidence. This may mean that this change was the catalyst for both increased financial freedom for women, while also complicating the division of labour within households and also for individuals.

The 40-hour workweek was, perhaps, feasible for a few decades via having a person dedicated to domestic duties. However, over the last few decades many people have become overburdened with the expectations of their jobs alongside maintaining a functional home. This has especially impacted case for women, who seem to still be feeling the hangover of prior generations’ expectations around gender roles. Or, for some young people, this means living with their parents for longer than they might like due to finances and shared labour, which only increased during the pandemic.

Factoring in eight hours of sleep, commutes, grocery shopping, cleaning, dishes, laundry, and, of course, more dishes, we don’t get much down time. While this working week is an expectation cross-generationally at the moment, it is particularly pressing for Generation Z and Millennials, who face a rate of wage growth that is not proportionate to the rising cost of living.  Even with the dream of eventual financial stability, work  feels so disproportionate to the energy we expend on work and life-admin.

This workweek structure and work-life balance also doesn’t take into account the large proportion of our generation who are studying while working part-time or casually as they work toward getting degrees. For many of us, this means a collated more-than-40 hour workweek combined with further financial stress. We’ve accumulated and are accumulating greater student loan debt while some of us also live paycheck to paycheck.  

It might be useful to understand the collective burden of these generational factors through the lens of the wellbeing framework inspired by self-determination theory. This framework offers four major aspects of wellbeing autonomy, competency, relatedness and beneficence. These refer to, respectively, feeling that we have volition are successful in the pursuit our goals, have caring relationships and have a positive impact on the world around us.

So let’s look at how we’re going on those fronts. Our autonomy is threatened by the choice between climbing rent prices, choosing to save by living with our families, or paying for a shoebox room in a leaky house we share with passive aggressive roommates. Our feelings of competency can be placed at risk as we all try to juggle too much: a 40-ish-hour workweek, or a part-time job alongside a degree, some form of a social life if you’re lucky. A sense of beneficence is difficult to grasp when we feel like our individual efforts are futile because corporations have so much power.

Now, here’s the good news: recognising and confronting the socioeconomic and environmental challenges that face our generation might be the first step to overcoming them. As we share our feelings of existential exhaustion, we’re reflecting on the way our lifestyles compare to expectations placed on us. This can provide us, hopefully, with a sense of relatedness as we commiserate over then collaborate to repair the other pillars of wellbeing.

I, at 24, have started talking more openly with friends and family about how we’re seeing these impacts manifest in our own lives. I feel like I’m pedalling away on a stationary bike for some undetermined goal. For each friend I confide in, I get some form of ‘yeah, same’ in response. The bittersweet news is that we definitely aren’t alone in this feeling, which has led some to predict a turning of tides in the near future. This is being referred as ‘Late Stage Capitalism’, which alludes to the idea that these realisations will lead to widespread systemic change.

Young people are talking more about these issues, as the pandemic continues to place straws on the camel’s back. It’s leading us to reassess the sustainability of our lifestyles, both in terms of the literal environment as well as how long we can endure, as humans, a chronic lack of leisure time.

It’s Millennials and Gen-Z that are driving the fight to repair the damage of climate change, and prioritise sustainability for the sake of future generations. We’re also pushing for better working conditions through quitting, or regaining out work-life balance through quiet quitting. While it won’t all happen overnight, we are striving to maintain autonomy, and we are redefining what competent means. Maybe competence for our generations means the ability to think critically, rather than being purely about ‘productivity’. In terms of beneficence, we can hopefully rest a little more easily knowing we’re more conscious now that ever of the world’s future.

Look, it’s a lot to confront. It’s overwhelming, no doubt. but with the ingenuity and tenacity that is characteristic of Gen-Z and Millennial culture, there’s a good chance that we’ll at least chip away at these problems before your mum can tell you to get off TikTok and go touch some grass.

Natalie Keenan is a creative writing student at the University of Melbourne.

[Image: “Worn out” by nigel@hornchurch is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.]

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