The dream job is dead. Now what?

We're finally at the precipice of a Post Dream Job Labor Market. And it's time to take the leap.

Maxine McCrann
ByMary Retta

As children, we’re often asked what we want to “be” when we grow up. Our answer is supposed to lie within a very specific list of responses: A doctor. A teacher. An actor. The president. In short: We are forced to respond with a job. From an early age in America, we are taught that our identity — who we are today or might one day become — is entirely defined by work. And therefore, when we dream of our future lives, we are automatically also conceptualizing the next several decades of our future labor.

During the aughts and 2010s, “hustle culture” taught many millennials that if they put in enough hours, they might be rewarded with their dream job — a fun, stimulating, and fulfilling career — and therefore, their dream life. However, this mindset is quickly shifting among working-age Americans, largely due to the pandemic, which exposed not only abysmally low wages and often non-existent benefits, but also the apathy companies often hold for their hard working employees.

Through mass strikes and a growing workers’ rights movement, the COVID-19 crisis created a massive mainstream anti-work sentiment the likes of which we had never seen in America — even for those working their dream job. Labor journalist Sarah Jaffe addressed this phenomenon in her 2021 book Work Won’t Love You Back which focused on America's shifting thoughts about labor during the pandemic. “We’re supposed to work for the love of it,” Jaffe writes on the ‘dream job,’ but “it is not a victory to have work demand our love.”

While this growing movement wherein people are questioning the idea that we must give all our time and energy towards a career has reached people of all generations, it had a particularly strong effect on Gen Z, many of whom were just beginning to enter the workforce when the pandemic began. Beginning in the spring of 2020, the phrase “I do not dream of labor” began proliferating on YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok, with everyone from influencers to regular people alike making relatable video content about how they do not want to engage in any sort of work for fear of participating in harmful capitalist structures.

This dilemma illustrates a shift into what I like to call the Post Dream Job Labor Market, a reality affecting people of all generations but particularly relevant to Gen Z. When facing down the next several decades of their lives and reflecting upon the lines they’ve been fed about hustle culture, young people are realizing they want to prioritize their friends, hobbies, and other pursuits over work.

While on the one hand exciting, this shift also causes a conundrum: If the dream job is dead — but we still live within systems that demand all of our labor and time in order to survive — how do we orient ourselves?

Though perhaps an unanswerable question, some Gen Zs are crafting their own solutions. Lucy, a 24-year-old theater worker in New York City who preferred not to use her real name for discretion at her job, told Mic that she is currently working her dream job. An aspiring theater worker since the age of eight, Lucy recently found a journal entry from 2016 where she had written her five-year plan: “I want to be the assistant director on a show at a major Off-Broadway or Broadway theater."

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“I’m working on the directing team of a major Broadway musical, and if my 8-year-old self knew this, she’d be freaking out,” Lucy says. “For the most part, this is still my dream job.

During the pandemic, however, I came to realize that perhaps this career isn't the end-all-be-all for me since I realized how exhausted, emotionally spent, and anxious it left me.”

Lucy is one of many people who worked tirelessly to achieve their dream job –– taking unpaid work, working well over 40 hours a week, enduring an unhealthy work environment, etc –– only to eventually realize that even jobs that seem perfect are still strenuous and exploitative. Jaffe’s idea that we are “supposed to work for the love of it” is particularly pervasive in creative fields such as theater, literature, or the arts. Samhita Mukhopadhyay, former executive editor of Teen Vogue and author of the forthcoming The Myth of Making It, can speak to this first hand.

“When I was coming up in media as a young Gen X’er, there was this idea that you have to work constantly, have eight different side hustles and then maybe you’ll reach your dreams,” says Mukhopadhyay, who notes a a marked shift within the younger generation from the mentality of “there’s no success without suffering.” “Gen Z is looking at their elders and thinking, ‘y’all hustled like crazy and what do we have?’ Climate change, mounting student debt, no access to affordable health care or housing. I think young people are putting more priority on enjoying the things they do, because the idea that ‘working hard’ will always get you somewhere has clearly been exposed as false.”

As Mukhopadhyay sees it, one factor behind the mounting anti-work sentiment in young people is that, quite simply, labor used to provide more of a reward for workers in America. According to data from July 2020, full-time minimum wage workers cannot afford a two-bedroom rental anywhere in the U.S. and cannot afford a one-bedroom rental in 95% of U.S. counties, due to the federal minimum wage not being altered despite steady general inflation.

The realization that labor under capitalism is inherently exploitative has caused some Gen Z to change the way they think about work: Rather than pursue a dream job so that they can spend their days doing something they love, some young people have decided to work in a field they are ambivalent towards so that they can keep their passions separate from labor. Elizabeth Bradon, a 23-year-old from Chicago, decided to work in retail full time rather than pursue her passion of freelance writing to avoid the pressures of having her creative pursuits fund her life. “I think dream jobs don't exist anymore. Dream jobs are normal jobs put on pedestals,” she says. “I just want a stable income that allows me the freedom and mental space to be creative.” Now, her retail job allows her to pay her bills with minimal stress, and her free time is devoted to writing.

“Gen Z is looking at their elders and thinking, ‘y’all hustled like crazy and what do we have?’ Climate change, mounting student debt, no access to affordable health care or housing.”

Elizabeth’s maneuver within the Post Dream Job Labor Movement begs the question: Is it possible to pursue your dreams without making them your job? This is a question that Naydeline Mejia, a 23-year-old freelance writer from the Bronx, is also currently grappling with.

“I don't know if I would find joy from my ‘dream’ anymore if it was attached to my work and my way of earning money because then my dream would become a chore or something I have to do to survive instead of something I want to do and find happiness through,” Mejia explains. “This is something I am currently battling with. For me, writing is my job but it's also my dream and my passion. I hate work, but I never want to hate writing, which is why I am confused about whether or not I should make it my work. It's really just capitalism fucking it up for me I think.”

This desire for separation between work and pleasure is a common theme among Gen Z workers. Though often lauded as the ultimate goal, “work-life balance” cannot truly be achieved until we acknowledge and change the systems we are living in, which demand all of our time and labor in exchange for very few tangible benefits.

What many young people are hoping for is that this moment of anti-work will be translated into a new era where labor is no longer prioritized over friendships, family, hobbies, and life’s other pleasures. One where when children are asked what they want to be when they grow up, they will respond with “fulfilled” or “happy”; where young people are brought up not thinking about their dream job, but their dream life, and critically examining how and if work factors into that at all.

“In my dream life, I’m able to have a life while still being fulfilled from a career that I feel passionately about,” says Lucy. “I want to have at least two days off a week and be able to eat three meals a day. I want to have hobbies and sleep eight hours a night. I want to be able to invest considerable time in the lives of my loved ones and not make them feel like they need to be slotted into my schedule. My dream life is one that feels balanced.”