An Epidemic of Occupational Despair

Photo Credit: Volkan Omez |

My high school senior told me a pretty sad story the other day.

She described a classroom exchange in which the teacher, who is passionate and enthusiastic about her subject, had to convince a student to complete an assignment.

The student, another senior, was whining like a toddler that the project wasn’t turning out right and she just wanted to give up. According to my daughter, this is typical of most of the students in this particular class. Of the three projects that have been assigned this semester, most of the kids haven’t even started the first~and don’t care.

This is an upper-level, elective course that has prerequisites to enroll. Theoretically, the class accommodates the student who has an interest and a minimum aptitude for the subject.

The teacher confided in my daughter that she “can’t do this anymore”, that she hates teaching and that “this place is a disease”(the high school). Yikes!

Let me give you some context. We live in a middle-class suburb. While our school isn’t the wealthiest and definitely has its troubled students, its fair share of teenage substance use and lower-than-desired standardized test scores, it also boasts graduates who include a West Point cadet, actuary science major, pre-med and pre-law students, plenty of engineering, nursing, accounting students and other high performers. Relatively speaking, this isn’t a terrible school.

The teacher isn’t a newbie. In fact, maybe her frustration wouldn’t be as depressing if she were struggling to understand classroom management or working with kids, in general. She’s been teaching for almost a decade, has probably reached a salary bump recently and likely feels more stuck than if she were in her first few years in the profession.

Let me be clear, I get that there are far more tragic stories in schools than a fairly well-paid teacher who’s bummed that kids don’t care about her class. I also realize that there are more tragic things than a spoiled, uninspired teenager.

The tragedy in my view is that capable people are just taking up time and space and it’s mostly accepted as normal. Maybe it’s contagious and teachers and students are just contaminating each other. It’s hard to tell which came first in a cesspool of apathy.

Hopeless job dissatisfaction is not exclusive to suburban high school teachers. It’s tough to get an accurate statistic on sheer unhappiness with work but figures range from almost 60% to 87% of adults reporting that they hate their jobs.

People routinely admit their career misery to me and I’m not sure why. It could be that they know my identity has nothing to do with a job or degree (I quit practicing law when my third child was born). Maybe they’re humoring me because they think I’m a bored housewife. Maybe it’s my age (47). But people I hardly know regularly admit to me that they don’t like their work.

Here are a few examples:

  • The 30-year-old tennis coach who confided that in spite of his status as a respected coach of elite players and a trusted mentor, he was uninspired and depressed that his work didn’t have meaning.
  • The old law school classmate who admitted that he was sick of his small town practice and couldn’t wait to retire and “open a sandwich shop-or something”.
  • My neighbor, a loan officer, who told me that he never thought he would be doing what he did for 25 years.

There’s a rash of unhappiness related to work for people of all ages in a variety of occupations.

Younger workers feel stuck and disillusioned and maybe a little misled. Older professionals feel stuck, disillusioned AND regretful.

I’m wondering why people in my generation aren’t honest with younger people about the challenges, bullshit and disappointments of their own chosen career path.

One problem is that we measure success by acquisition of money, things and credentials instead of lifestyle choice and freedom.

Speak up people! Be honest. Tell it like it is! Preach it, sister! You’re sad as hell and you’re not gonna take it anymore!

Except it looks like you are going to take it and you have no intention of warning your younger counterparts.

There’s hope for the worker in despair. A cure for the crestfallen.

The proliferation of information (they call it the internet), access to tools and the ability to learn new skills gives anyone hope for a new life or at least, a new lease on life. There are options.

A person can do a 180 or just a pivot, using his current skills in a new way. What’s different now than even a decade ago is that the barrier to entry is so low.

There’s little or no risk to trying different things while still working full time. Most of the platforms to solicit or publicize your work, including building your own website are cheap or free.

The cost of adding to your arsenal of marketable skills is also relatively low compared to a decade ago. You can learn just about anything online and use it to change your situation.

Whether your 26 or 62, you have options that I didn’t have when I was 26. You have nothing to lose but a couple more decades of despondency. Go for it!