Note: This was an assessment piece written in August 2018 for QUT unit DFB404.
Are we dragging through life in survival mode – rather than thriving – in our quest to tick all the right boxes?
Recently, I served a friend who I hadn’t seen in some time at work.
“How are you?” she asked.
“Exhausted,” I responded. “And so beyond the point of it I no longer remember how not being exhausted feels.”
“I’m barely holding it together, either,” she said.
I made her soy latte, we exchanged small consolation smiles, and with that, off she went.
This kind of exchange is not rare. Whenever someone asks me how I am, “tired” is always factored into my answer. I could have slept for seven days, brain plugged into a wall and recharging like an Apple device, and I’d still tell you that I’m tired.
In the age of “slashing” – which has nothing to do with Metallica or ripped denim – and everything to do with our health-obsessed, over-achieving generation as we moonlight our way through life: fixed on swinging sideways, upwards and outwards to achieve our goals, rather than climbing just one career ladder.
“I think our generation really does have that expectation of having and doing it all,” says 19-year-old communication design and media student Maggie Zhou, who “dabbles in a lot of things.”
“Especially being a creative, I think it’s sometimes not enough just being really good at one thing. These days, it’s expected that we have the skill set of multiple job descriptions.”
Hers is a CV already well-documented: she currently splits her time between university, a social media internship, tutoring, freelance writing, a small communications job, “a bit” of photography, the constant upkeep of her blog and Instagram (where she has amassed over 6,000 followers) and the occasional influencer opportunity.
It’s a bio that well and truly exceeds the character limits imposed by the social media platforms she frequents, and if it sounds exhausting, that’s because it is: “Let me just catch my breath,” Zhou laughs once she finally finishes telling me.
Our lives have become perpetual cycles of technology, the spectacularly high expectations set by social media, and sleep deprivation. Functioning in a state of permanent elevation – a sort of tired-but-wired, knot-in-the-stomach hyper-mania – is the new normal.
While we’re told that keeping too many tabs open will drain our devices of battery, this has become a metaphor for modern life. Many of us are running around with too many tabs open inside our heads, compulsively checking social media, multi-tasking, and feeling plagued by a slew of questions that range from “What will our lives look like in 20 years?” and “Are we saving enough money?” to “Should we be building a personal brand?”
As millennials and their careers have matured, they’ve applied to their professional descriptions the same meticulous self-curation perfected on their Instagram accounts – a medium that pairs seductively well with perfection, both in terms of the standards we hold ourselves and others to on it, and what we like to consume.
“Social media – you’ve got to take it with a grain of salt,” says Associate Professor and Director of the Design Lab in QUT’s Creative Industries Faculty, Evonne Miller.
“Everyone shares their wonderful, perfect lives, and you look at it and think, ‘Are you kidding me?’ All you see are these highly successful people living glamorous lives, and we as individuals and as a society need to recognise that it’s often just a highlight reel.”
“The future for all of us looks uncertain, and when you’re constantly comparing yourself to every other young creative out there, it’s super easy to get burnt out,” says 21-year-old Melbourne arts, sociology and communications student, Monique Courtney.
Like Zhou’s, her plate is full – bordering on overloaded: along with full-time study, she interns, nannies, goes to church, volunteers and freelances where she can. That feeling of being “burnt out” Courtney describes has recently become a status symbol: a collective delusion that overwork and burnout are the price we must pay in order to succeed. Exclamations of stress and fatigue are a point of pride. It means you care, you’re passionate, and, if your plate is overloaded, it’s because your work is valued. And if your work is valued? Congratulations, you’re successful.
“Why am I so tired?” has become the existential cry of millennials everywhere, as they treat sleep like an optional lifestyle accessory at best, and, at worst, a waste of time – all the while acting as if doing so makes them heroes.
“You can’t say you spent the weekend having a nice little snooze on the couch and saying you’re feeling quite calm and happy,” says Miller, a former social psychologist.
“It’s all about ‘life’s so busy’ and ‘I’m so tired’, and the only way to succeed in this fast-paced world is to win that competition of being the most busy and therefore the most successful – and it’s all bullshit. We need to push back against this culture of prizing being busy, because it’s the surefire path to a breakdown.”
As author, businesswoman and firebrand Arianna Huffington concludes in her 2016 book, The Sleep Revolution: “Exhaustion is a sign of chaos. Not a badge of honour.”
What Zhou, Courtney and Miller all agree on is that we need to re-focus on what’s truly important – the things success, qualifications and lack of sleep can’t measure.
“Isn’t that what we all want, to be simply be happy?” says Zhou. “To blindly follow our dreams, to have a laugh, to have a story to tell at the end of the day – and someone to share it all with.”