Jemima Lewis: Since when did work bring you happiness?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

If anything could make one feel a nostalgic fondness for the Yuppy, it is the arrival of the Yeppy. A report published this week by the Social Research Centre has identified a new breed of ambitious twenty-something, dubbed the "Young, Experimenting Perfection Seeker".

Whereas Yuppies had rather prosaic, old-fashioned aspirations - lots of money, a big house and an impressive job title - Yeppies aim for altogether loftier heights. They want a job that will bring them everlasting fulfillment. So instead of knuckling down to one profession, they spend their twenties "browsing" through various careers in search of The One.

This agony of indecision extends to other areas of their lives, such as where to live and who to love. They "try on" a series of relationships, deferring marriage and babies for as long as possible, and often live with their parents into their late twenties rather than commit to the tyranny of a mortgage.

"Yeppies are unsure how to achieve their ambitions," says anthropologist Kate Fox, the author of the report, "so they experiment through a shopping-style approach, trying to find the perfect job, the ideal relationship and the most fulfilling lifestyle." They may be, as Fox claims, "less single-mindedly materialistic than their predecessors", but their style is every bit as consumerist.

The idea that we ought to be fulfilled by our jobs is comparatively new, and thoroughly unhelpful. For most of human history, work has simply been a necessity. The Dickensian clerk, scratching away at the same ledger in the same office for his entire working life, may have been bored to tears - but at least he was not tormented by grandiose expectations.

For most people, a respectable, steady job, rising slowly through the ranks from apprenticeship to retirement, was the best one could hope for. To pursue any kind of creative vocation, you had to be either privately wealthy or content to be poor.

John Ruskin summed up the modest hopes of the 19th century worker thus: "In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: They must be fit for it: They must not do too much of it: And they must have a sense of success in it." Wise words indeed - but much too humble for modern tastes.

These days, we expect to actively enjoy our work, and feel that we have failed if enjoyment is not forthcoming. Ever since the Sixties, we have had it drummed into us that we are entitled - even obliged - to seek personal fulfillment in every aspect of our lives.

And since capitalism has done away with the job for life, most of us no longer have the option of just stumbling into an office and staying there. Instead, we must seize control of our career trajectories, and stay at the steering wheel for the entirety of our working lives.

It is hardly surprising, then, that twenty-somethings sometimes crack under the strain of choosing the right career. I exited my twenties four years ago, when the Yeppie was just a twinkle in Kate Fox's eye - but even then the pressure to find the perfect job was intense. It was all anyone seemed to talk about.

I remember sitting on the stairs at a house party, commiserating with a stranger about the demise of conversation. "The only thing people want to know," she grumbled, "is what you do, how much you get paid, and whether you enjoy it. You'd think there was nothing interesting about us apart from our jobs."

We stared at our feet for a while, suddenly stumped for small talk. "So ... anyway," she said eventually. "What do you do?"

I was luckier than most of my peers, in that I had always known I wanted to be a journalist. This did not protect me from career anxiety (in the two months between leaving university and finding my first job, I developed stress-related excema, asthma and alopecia; it was not a pretty sight), but at least I had some idea what direction I should be pointing in. Most of my friends, however intelligent and well-qualified, didn't have a clue.

Everyone they spoke to gave the same advice: "Find something you like doing, and do that." But they had no idea what they liked doing, apart from playing Frisbee and watching old episodes of Dallas; so they drifted into marketing, recruitment or banking, got increasingly anxious and depressed about not being fulfilled, dropped out, dropped back in again, and berated themselves continually for not having found The Right Job. You can call it "browsing" if you like, but to me it looked like mental torment.

From the other side of 30, all that angst seems even more unnecessary. Nobody talks about their careers any more - they're too busy trying to sort out marriage and babies. A cheerful resignation has settled over the bankers and marketers: like the Dickensian clerk, they are coming to see work as a means to an end, rather than their only vehicle for self-expression.

The Yuppies had the good sense to crave only tangible, measurable wealth. What the Yeppies are after - total spiritual satisfaction - is something that no job can provide. Fulfillment, like love, becomes more elusive the more you search for it. So you might as well stop procrastinating and get on with the job - any job. Or as Edith Wharton put it: "If only we'd stop trying to be happy, we'd have a pretty good time."