Do all twenty-something year olds feel unfulfilled by work?

Michael Keller
Oct 16, 2019 · 5 min read

You aren’t alone. Most of us dread our morning commutes to the office. But we can do something about it — and it isn’t quitting or traveling abroad.

A millennial woman who feels depressed sits at her desk, clutching her forehead and looking at her phone.
A millennial woman who feels depressed sits at her desk, clutching her forehead and looking at her phone.
JGI/Tom Grill/Getty Images

It’s hard to talk about. But over the past five years, depression rates among Millennials have grown by 47% according to this study of 55 million people.

That’s 540,000 more Millennials suffering from depression in the United States alone. I’m certainly one unit in that staggering statistic.

This epidemic affects so many of us — graduate students, baristas, software engineers, musicians, teachers, entire families. Yet nobody talks about it.

So, why the hell do we feel this way?

Well, journey back to your junior year of high school with me.

You were likely forced to make a life-defining decision at 17 years old. When you started working or studying at university, you were bombarded with job fairs & well-meaning family shotgunning unsolicited advice at you.

“Why would you study sociology? You’ll earn more in computer science.”

“You’re so smart. You could do anything you wanted. Just pick something!”

— Ahem — Sound familiar?

But it’s not just our families, mentors or (the pressure we feel when comparing ourselves to) successful friends that rush us into jobs that leave us feeling empty and deeply unsatisfied.

The truth is: Depressive feelings about your career are likely a product of anxiety and a lack of certainty about your future and potential.

This is the root of why the majority of Millennials end up in jobs they hate.

When you have zero experience on your resume (duh, you’re young) and have deeply anxious or existential feelings about your future, any career opportunity feels like a blessing.

So when recruiters dangle promises of prestige and employment near our untrained noses, we often wrongly convince ourselves that we understand what we want for our futures.

You may have believed that you wanted to be an interior designer or software engineer or marine biologist, but did you consider which industry? The company size? The city? The lifestyle? The impact of your work?

Most of us didn’t. And lo, we feel unfulfilled by our day-to-day doldrums.

So, what now?

You may dream of quitting your job and exploring the world like your favorite Instagram travel blogger.

You may believe that you’ve invested too much into this unfulfilling career path and that it’s far too late to pivot. And worse, you may have no idea what career path you would even pivot towards.

But — despite hundreds of posts about escaping the 9 to 5— quitting your job and traveling the world is not the answer. Trust me, I’ve tried.

Buying a one-way ticket to Paris or Barcelona might alleviate the pain temporarily, but you’ll ultimately return to life you’re living now.

But here’s the catch: There’s a proven way to fill that pit in your gut.

Bright-eyed and elated, I began my career in Silicon Valley playing telephone for upper management — convincing myself that my work had any meaning.

Yet everyday, I found myself staring into the abyss of my computer monitor imagining myself doing or being, quite literally, anything or anywhere else.

As the soullessness of capitalism weighed on me, I started volunteering with a nonprofit that runs with people suffering from homelessness to foster community, humanize them & help them get back on their feet.

Meeting and running with these men and women — empathizing with them — sparked a joy in me that I had never felt while working before.

Soon, I got involved with a shelter for young people suffering from homelessness, a mentorship program for at-risk middle school students and a fundraising effort for Cambodian children with speech disabilities.

I was hooked by the thought that my work was genuinely helping others.

In The Giving Way to Happiness, Jenny Santi describes how altruism activates the same pleasure centers of the brain stimulated by food, sex and drugs.

So I started researching the lifestyle of working at a nonprofit, which inevitably became a hurdle to me pursuing altruism in my working life.

While ostensibly selfish, I couldn’t bring myself to live and ultimately raise a family on a nonprofit salary. Perhaps this lifestyle choice resonates with you.

But joining a nonprofit is not the only way to help others and feel genuinely fulfilled by your day-to-day work. Here’s a few examples of alternatives:

  • B Corps — Like Patagonia, All Birds and Athleta are for-profit companies that are certified and committed to making a positive social and environmental impact on the world. There are over 3000 B Corps.

There are thousands of companies and organizations that you can join where your work will have a tangible impact on the lives of others — jobs where you can be challenged, learn, grow, help others and earn a healthy salary.

I left a major tech company in the Bay Area to join a B Corp, volunteer with nonprofits and fundraise thousands of dollars for causes that I care about.

The best part? I work less hours than before and feel genuinely fulfilled from the moment I wake up until the moment I lay down for bed at night.

Our careers take up more than 40% of our waking hours each week. Imagine feeling happier and more impactful in each of those waking moments.

To be clear, mental health is incredibly important — professionals like psychologists and psychiatrists can attest to this — and this transition alone will not solve the depression epidemic amongst Millennials.

But, helping others in your day-to-day life just might make you feel like your work has meaning — and I sincerely hope this path will fill your heart up too.

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Michael Keller

Written by

A writer, poet and healer who enjoys getting lost in new worlds.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +792K followers.

Michael Keller

Written by

A writer, poet and healer who enjoys getting lost in new worlds.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +792K followers.

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