The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated and illuminated some of the country’s most pressing issues, and it has become clear that the future of U.S. labor is uncertain. Over half of U.S. adults are currently considering switching jobs, a trend that indicates workers, particularly young people, are largely dissatisfied with their work lives. This dissatisfaction comes in part from the immense pressure Americans face to be as productive as possible at any cost, a pressure that seeps almost unnoticed into university cultures like Georgetown University’s.
The high-stress work environment that many students experience demands our careful consideration. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with working hard for a better future, students should not feel proud of overextending themselves to the point of boasting about how little sleep they got because they were studying for an exam or tallying the meals they’ve neglected while writing an essay. The work-centric worldview that encourages us to grind ourselves into dust in pursuit of better grades and opportunities, and the mental strain that so often accompanies this relentless push for more, must stop. Otherwise, work will utterly hijack our lives.
For many of us, though, it already has. Our summers have been, and will probably continue to be, consumed by resume-building activities aimed at making us appear more well rounded on paper. Then, we’re tossed right back into the school year, where weekly quizzes, tests, papers and projects govern every aspect of our time. When we determine the worth of our actions based on their ability to reach a future goal, we forget the importance of prioritizing our personal fulfillment.
Now, I don’t want this to transform into a carpe diem, YOLO, do-what-makes-you-happy,
find-your-bliss-and-don’t-look-back call to action that would induce so many eye rolls that you
lose your vision for a few minutes. Nevertheless, it’s becoming clearer every day that our generation is lost. From 2008-18, researchers found rates of anxiety nearly doubled from 7.97% to 14.66% for adults ages 18-25. In that period, depression, loneliness and suicidal thoughts have all increased as well. While many stressors play into these statistics, from social media to political turmoil and most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, 87% of Generation Z college students report that “their education is a significant source of stress.”
And that’s simply unconscionable — the purpose of education is not to scare students away from school. It’s to ensure that everyone can live prosperous, fulfilling lives. So, when I have friends who are setting timers to let them know when they can break down and cry for 15 minutes before going back to work, it’s a sign we should scrutinize our approach to school. And when I don’t have enough fingers to count the number of people I personally know who have experienced panic attacks or suicidal thoughts because of the pressures of schoolwork and college applications, we should immediately begin overhauling our ideas surrounding work and education. Of course this won’t be easy, but this challenge is all the more reason we should take our infatuation with work more seriously.
We need an escape from the conditions that make us base our self-worth on our productivity. This doesn’t have to be in the form of a massive social movement; it can be simpler. We can take it upon ourselves to shift our mindsets from productivity to personal well-being and intentionally prioritize our own health over the pressures telling us we need to work until we cannot take it anymore.
Instead of taking a break from homework only to return to it, take some time off for the sake of having time off. Let your own goals for your fulfillment dictate your time; stop allowing your work schedule to determine what you expend your energy on.
Rather than staying up until 3 a.m. to finish the last pieces of a chemistry problem, we must establish boundaries that ensure our time is our own. Taking the necessary space to reflect and reevaluate can be difficult, especially during stressful moments. I’ll even admit I don’t do this often. But occasionally, it hits me. And maybe it can hit you too. Work has taken over our lives, and it’s up to us to regain control.
Liam McGraw is a first-year in the College. Newfound Norms is published every other week.