Why Does Work Suck in Your 20s?

Let me lay my cards on the table. I’m a twenty-something. So I write not as a seasoned worker, but as a peer struggling to finding meaning after college. I became disillusioned with work quickly after graduation. My job was to fundraise, and I expected this to be both encouraging and quick. It was neither. I lived in a new city, hours from my fiancee. Months passed, expectations lingered, and hope faded. God was breaking me off some long-held beliefs (see below).

My experience is not unique. As a friend, I’ve listened to peers who can’t find a job (or the right job), who work for brutal managers, who are stuck in low-level positions, who can barely make enough to pay rent. As a college minister, I’ve counseled some graduates who lost hope of finding work, and others who, finding work, feel like they’re living a nightmare. In darker moments, I’ve seen disappointment devolve into doubts about God, marital strife, alcohol abuse, and depression.

These examples paint a bleak picture, but maybe they resonate? If you’re a 20-something, I imagine they do or once did. They beg a question of immense personal significance: why does work suck in our 20s? And more importantly: what can we do to find joy at work? Let’s start with the former.

Work sucks because we harbor unrealistic expectations. If you grew up in the 90s or 00s then you grew up in the height of the self-esteem movement. Today you reap the bitter fruit. The self-esteem mantra is that if you put your mind to something, then it is yours. That quaint illusion (the world is your oyster) deceived us before 2008, but today it’s simply ridiculous.

College graduates compete with professional veterans for entry-level positions, so the market is hardly ripe for the picking. Most of us won’t get our “dream-job” even if we apply ourselves with utmost industry. Our experience defies the self-esteem mantra. Thus, when find ourselves in a lackluster job, we wonder “Is there something wrong with me? Am I failing?”

According to the mantra, if I really want it, then I should be able to get it. The problem is that I am not in control of the universe. I cannot create jobs. I may not be the best guy/girl for the job today. The reality is, we may have to work in a not-dream job for a long time. But that doesn’t mean we’re failures.

In fact, most people in history did not choose their careers. We still experience greater vocational freedom then people in the past. The problem isn’t often the work itself, it’s our unrealistic expectations about what work should be like. But perhaps this is a disguised blessing. God warns us that good times often lead us to forget him,

And when the Lord your God brings you into the land … with great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, then take care lest you forget the Lord(Deuteronomy 6:10-12, ESV)

If we won our dream job, we’d be tempted to worship it, to live for it, to exist for it. We’d be tempted to forget God in our prosperity. Maybe paper pushing is saving us from a greater evil? Maybe God is sanctifying us through our not-dream jobs?

So, if finding our dream job isn’t the solution, how can we find joy in our work? The Bible gives us good news: we can find joy in work, no matter what we do, because Jesus invites us to work for him. This is most clear in Paul’s words to Christian servants,

Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Colossians 3:22-25, ESV)

Let me ask: does your work feel more or less menial than servitude? Would you choose being a slave over your current work? I doubt anyone would answer “yes.” Yet Paul elevates even servitude to glory by saying it (if done for God’s sake) will be rewarded with an eternal inheritance.

Here’s Paul’s point: no matter what you do for a living, you can do it for God’s glory. When you’re processing paperwork you can do it for a pay check, or your boss’s approval, or God’s glory. We honor God by doing our work excellently, because he is excellent and loves excellence. We honor God by doing our work heartily, because he is hearty and loves hearty work. We honor God by doing our work ethically, because God is a holy and loves honest work. When non-believers see our good work, they too will honor God.

The self-esteem mantra creates a two-edged sword. One edge cuts by promising that we can get whatever job we want if we try hard enough. The other edge cuts by promising that wealth and successful make us fulfilled, happy people. Both edges sever us from real living. Both threaten to rob us of the true glory of work: serving Jesus for Jesus’ reward.

So let me end on a few practical points:

First, don’t quit your job simply because it’s not perfect (or even half-perfect). Work is hard. Work is tiring. And sometimes it’s boring and frustrating. This is your opportunity to practice working for God. Consider how he watches you work, how he feels honored by your work, and let your significance flow from his pleasure in it all.

Second, don’t work simply to move-up. Success may come more slowly than we expect, as new upper-level positions are hard to find, and competition is thick. If you’re living for a promotion, you’ll end up crushed, disappointed, and depleted. Work for heartily for God, and if success comes, thank him.

Third, don’t work for money. You’ll never make enough to satisfy that idol. You’ll make sacrifices that never pay off: your spouse, your friends, your kids, your faith, your ethics. Instead, set your heart on the reward that Christ offers. That’s a life-giving reward you cannot lose.

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