When I saw TikTok influencer Rod’s recent video about his morning routine, I breathed a shuddering sigh of dread and relief. With Shania Twain’s “I Feel Like A Woman” playing in the background, Rod gets ready for his day. “Let’s go girls,” he lip-syncs to the song, motioning toward two personalities set to accompany him on his remote office job: “Anxiety about getting fired” and “Addiction to coffee.” “Just one of many guests I have throughout the work day,” the caption reads. Rod looks up at his minions, already exhausted. “Come on,” he says with a resigned sigh.
I had, foolishly and narcissistically, assumed I was the only person I knew filled with the relentless anxiety that I was going to lose my job in one way or another. Any misstep, any small mistake or awkward comment, could result in a manager saying, you know what, I’m over this employee. Bye.
But of course, I’m not. How could I be? Young people — a term I use to encompass both millennial and Gen Z adults under 40 — face job precarity, financial insecurity, and mental health struggles unlike anything seen in decades. Rod’s honest admission to his own neuroses, charmingly cloaked in humor, is a reminder of the many ways we’ve learned to cope with a work environment defined by instability.
TikTok, with its short video format notorious for inspiring dance trends and viral comedy skits, has emerged as a new home for worklife commentary. Rod is just one of many influencers creating videos that speak to the anxiety, frustration, and annoyance many young people feel about our jobs and careers. These creators, who satirize corporate jargon, poke fun at HR’s lackluster attempts to improve employee mental health, and joke about the farce of taking a vacation, reveal how young people are increasingly questioning whether the 9-to-5 status quo is really all that healthy or desirable.
Taking a nod from a long history of comedians who’ve used humor to expose the bleak realities of how we live, these young TikTok creators are using dry wit and satire to make a larger point: that the way we are expected to work, to devote our entire identities to our jobs or corporate overlords, is stressful, ridiculous, and toxic.
After all, work won’t ever love you back.
Sara MacKneson is an accountant based in Ontario. She began her TikTok account in earnest in March of 2020 when many office workers in her area were sent home because of Covid-19. Her work is pretty stressful, she says, so she makes TikToks to decompress and poke fun at some of the tougher or sillier aspects of her job.
“With the rise of social media, especially with TikTok, people are able to see that it’s not just them that are feeling burnt out,” she says. “TikTok has really opened a lot of people’s eyes to exactly what it is and see that you’re not alone.” This ability to witness other people’s experiences and compare them to our own is one of the better results to have emerged from social media — and what we’re learning is that the kids are not all right.
In early 2020 I wrote about how unattainable homeownership was for young people. Millennials and Gen Z are choked with debt, but unlike the debt of earlier generations, who by the time they reached their thirties were mostly saddling mortgage debt, we are struggling under the weight of trillions of dollars of consumer debt and college loans. It’s not for lack of trying. According to the New America Foundation, 31% of employed Black millennials, 28% of employed Latinx millennials, and 19% of employed white millennials spend at least 16 hours a week working for supplementary income. Another 23% of millennials have been laid off, and 30% of us don’t have access to good jobs in the first place.
“I think more people now are realizing with the pandemic that they don’t want to be working like a dog.”
And while older generations were mostly able to recover from the Great Recession of 2008, millennials haven’t. According to research from the Center for Household Financial Stability at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the typical millennial holds 41% less wealth than an adult of the same age in 1989. The situation is even worse for millennials of marginalized identities, including Black and Latinx folks.
“The recession was kind of the key point of change. From that point onwards, the working experiences of young workers, and millennials, in particular, has been marked by precarity,” says Arif Jetha, PhD, a scientist at the Institute for Work & Health whose work focuses on young and vulnerable workers. “It’s left a scarring effect. And I would say that has tracked on throughout their adult life, especially those who are most affected by the 2008 recession.”
This helps explain why Rod the TikTok creator and I are perpetually on the edges of our seats about our jobs. As I write this story, I’m coming off a sweep of buyouts at the company I write for; several other publications have seen massive layoffs, or shut down completely, merely in the past few weeks. It’s far from a journalism problem; young people overall were considerably more likely to have lost their jobs because of the pandemic than older folks.
This post-recession precarity may be partly why so many people think of millennials as job-hoppers, migrating with ease from one job to another. But this is an inaccurate evaluation of young people, says Jetha. Data in Canada suggests that young people “don’t want to be working precariously. They want stable employment, and they want access to these benefits that come from stable employment.” Most millennials want a career, but many of us can’t find one.
But, despite the anxiety and stress depicted in workplace TikToks, we’re also willing to be outspoken about poor work conditions — at least on social media. According to a 2020 Gallup poll, millennials expect work-life balance and flexibility out of their jobs. Pre-pandemic, most of us weren’t getting it; in a Deloitte study of thousands of fully employed young people, 40% of millennials and 50% of Gen Z reported being stressed “all or most” of the time.
For millennials and Gen Z overall, stress levels rose during the pandemic, more so than for older generations. But the Deloitte study, which focused on young people with full-time jobs, that number actually dropped — indicating that work-from-home life has had a distinctly positive effect on young peoples’ well-being.
“As someone who’s early in their career, work-from-home almost just feels like second nature,” says Corporate Natalie, a creator who makes popular TikToks about the absurdities and difficulties of office life. “Starting your career working from home makes the transition less daunting. You don’t have to worry about who you’re eating lunch with the bleak break room. You don’t have to wear the same sweaty blazer all day. You don’t have to take public transit and then walk a mile in the rain to get to your office. You just wake up!”
Part of what’s so delightful is seeing the anxiety, uncertainty, and frustration of our careers transformed into something that can be humorous.
Sarah MacKneson has a similar view on remote work, noting that a lot of young people have grown accustomed to working from home, and corporations are going to have to follow suit if they want to maintain their employees’ mental health and happiness. “I think more people now are realizing with the pandemic that they don’t want to be working like a dog. They will rather take up an experience or a position with maybe less money, but a lot more social and work-life balance where you can actually live your life,” she says, pointing out that young employees at Goldman Sachs recently spoke out en masse about their toxic work environment. “People are like, no, we’re not going to have these conditions anymore.”
Part of what’s so delightful about these videos is seeing the anxiety, uncertainty, and frustration of our careers transformed into something that can be humorous when viewed from a distance, or through an iPhone camera. In JennaHushka’s TikToks, Hushka pokes fun at how she carries the anxiety of her workweek into her weekend; in another, she illustrates how early 2000s romantic comedies gave women unrealistic expectations about what our careers were going to actually look like. In my personal favorite, Hushka pretends to be on a game show, quizzed on how corporate management should help maintain their employees’ mental health. (She gets the question wrong — management would prefer to send an email than provide paid mental health leave.)
MacKneson points out that, while her job is stressful she doesn’t hate it, and she hopes that the people who view her TikToks find the same stress relief that she does making them. “I just hope it brings them joy — like the middle of their workday, essentially, where they were working for 12 hours, but they do have that one break to look at whatever they want,” she says. “I would love to continue making them because it’s still going to be a relevant topic and situation moving forward even years from now.”
The pandemic, eventually, will end, and our jobs will probably get closer to “normal” though if employers are smart, they’ll allow their employees flexible work time and better work-life balance. It’s what most young people want, and we are gradually becoming more comfortable demanding it, especially as it’s abundantly clear after a year working from home that it is completely possible to work remotely at least part of the time and still be productive. But the need to find comfort and humor in our jobs will continue, especially since, Jetha says, “if I was to imagine a work environment, five years from now, I am not as optimistic as I would like to be.”
Job precarity for young people will continue. While we will eventually emerge from our pandemic shells and resume in-person life, millennials and Gen Z will face significant hurdles in the economy and in the workplace. But we’re also resilient — we’ve been through recessions before. Most importantly, despite what older people think of us, we can take a joke, and we can make them, too. Whatever comes next, we’ll be able to balance our anger, frustration, and anxiety with a laugh. “If you can’t laugh at the situation, you’re just gonna end up crumbling,” says MacKneson. “So you might as well have fun with it.”