“So amazing!” read another.
“Are you ready for your big-girl job?” asked a third well-wisher, accompanied by a GIF of Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope.
“I can’t believe I finally have a real job” was the text she sent me a few days later, from the comfort of her desk, where she had been hired to do operations work for an organization she had once, a few years prior, interned for. It was a weirdly solemn text, I assume a combination of nervousness about her first real day on the job, and a mild sense of relief that she had finally made her way out of the post-grad maze and into a job that society considered impressive. Finally, her degree wasn’t for nothing, and she was securely in a “real job.”
The truth is, nearly everyone experiences this anxiety in their 20s. The more the clock ticks away on your “no-longer-a-student” life, the more acute the feeling gets that you need to find your next big step. It’s a kind of musical chairs of the professional world, where there are only so many spots to be taken, and there are way more qualified young people trying to get into them. It can feel incredibly tense, like one wrong move in an internship or one stained sweater at an interview can be the deciding factor between you getting a “real job” and you staying in post-grad limbo. And so when you finally do cross that threshold and find yourself with a steady salary, benefits, and a little desk to call your own, all you feel is relief. You made it.
And that’s bullshit.
The thing about many “real jobs” is that they aren’t particularly fun or rewarding in the way we imagine them to be, they just have social prestige. And even when it comes to money, many people working “real” jobs could be making a much higher monthly income with a specific skilled job that they trained for at a technical school instead of university. There is no guarantee that having a desk job means a good living, comprehensive time off, work/life balance, personal fulfillment, or even the opportunity to meaningfully advance. There are many office-based jobs that provide none of those things, and leave people, in a few short years of “landing” it, wanting to quit overnight and escape it all.
And showering people with praise when they get an office job — praise that centers around it finally being something impressive and meaningful — only reinforces this. It creates a pressure to get one of these precious jobs not only because you might want it, but because you know that you will be heavily socially rewarded for it. Your family will feel relieved in their choice to help you finance school, your friends will be impressed, your professional network will finally recognize you as “one of their own.” You will move, very clearly, into a new stage of your life in people’s eyes, even if you were already a mature, thoughtful, hardworking person. It’s a line in the sand for many people, between “figuring it out” and “having it figured out.”
Even though these sentiments might be well-meaning, referring to this phase of your life as “real” or a “big girl job” (yikes) doesn’t do anyone any good. You know who is probably reading that? The person who is still working through an internship, or going back to school, or even — gasp! — not interested in working a “professional” job. And those people don’t deserve to be denigrated, or made to feel that what they are doing isn’t meaningful when compared to someone who took a more traditional route. When you are lifting up the traditional career path, you have to be pushing something down in comparison, and that “something” is every person who isn’t fitting neatly into the box that society wants them to. And it’s putting increased pressure on everyone who hasn’t “made it” yet to rush into that lifestyle, because they know that the world won’t take them seriously until they’re carrying around business cards and have a professional email.
A job is “real” when you work it, when you try your hardest and draw value from it, even if that value is “knowing what you don’t want to do in the future.” A job is “real” when you put in an honest day’s work and don’t look down your nose at anyone else’s work, because you know that the meaning of effort and dedication can be found anywhere from a coffee shop to a corporate office. Most of us have worked jobs that would be considered, by some of the more judgmental among us, to be “not real,” but if we told that to the version of ourselves putting in long hours at those jobs, they’d laugh in our faces. Of course they were “real.” Sweeping floors is real, dealing with angry customers is real, getting coffee for superiors is real, and learning about yourself in the process is real. Sitting at a desk may be more comfortable and respected, but that doesn’t mean we enjoy it any more or are getting more out of it. In fact, some of us (myself included) can think of more important lessons we learned doing work that was less valued by society.
Some people might never want to make that switch, and might never define their careers by what looks best on a resume. And that is more than okay, because the world is comprised, if nothing else, of diversity and varied skills. People can find meaning in an endless array of jobs, and it’s not up to any of us to define what is and isn’t real, nor to put undue pressure on someone the second they turn 22 to join the Ranks of the Working. Everyone deserves to find themselves and their professional happiness in their own time, and no one should feel more inclined to take a job because of how it would look than how it would feel. No one should be forced to spend their 20s — and beyond — in a job they hate because it’s what they thought they were supposed to have. No one should abandon the many incredible career paths that don’t involve an office because they are worried they might disappoint someone. No amount of prestige is worth your happiness.
In the end, my friend who was showered with praise about her “real job” was laid off about six months later when her company suffered huge budget cuts. Now she is doing what she always wanted to do, which is working as a line cook in a restaurant while she saves up for culinary school in the fall. No one flocked to her Facebook page to congratulate her when she took her first restaurant gig as a dishwasher to break into the industry last year — and she didn’t expect that they would. But to her, spending long hours in that hot kitchen, and learning the basics of doing what she loves, is the most “real” job she’s ever had.