If You Don't Have A "Real" Job, You're Nothing

It’s no secret that the employment landscape of 20-somethings these days is a bleak one. With crushing student loans, entry-level positions evaporating, and rent somehow remaining just as absurd — times are tough. It’s probably a safe bet to say that if you’re in your 20s, you’re surrounded by a veritable smorgasbord of employment statuses. There are people who have made it into their dream fields, people settling in to well-paid “professional” strata jobs, people making ends meet at multiple service and retail gigs, and people pounding the pavement with their resumes while they sleep in their parents’ basement. And these people, just a few short years ago, were all equals. They were going through various kinds of education (whether in college, traveling the world, or gaining a technical skill), and had every option before them. There was no reason that we couldn’t all be friends — be equals — and socialize openly with anyone we’d meet. But now, things have changed. We are divided up into very firm cliques based on how well we’re doing — especially in big cities, where a discrepancy in income or access is as discreet as a huge blemish — and the people on top seem all too eager to feed into them.

Up until recently, I was working a second (and rather unglamorous) job to supplement my income while I worked on my career in writing. It was an awkward middle ground that many people my age experience, where you have what you consider to be your “real” job, but are still tied financially to the one that gets you through the month. What do you say when you meet people? How do you introduce yourself? What do you tell your friends, or worse, your parents’ friends, when they ask? It’s inevitably some long-winded justification of trying to make ends meet, working this job just for the time being, getting things off the ground, etc. But for many people you’ll meet, you are going to be defined by that “supplementary” job. You haven’t “made it,” and are thus not a real grown-up. You’re not the 20-something version of a cool kid. I cannot tell you the number of brunches or happy hours where people would ask what I do and then look at me with this strange mix of pity and confusion before roundly brushing me off the rest of the evening. Even amongst my “real” friends, the divide between people who landed a “good” job and those who were still finding their way was painfully obvious.

And now that I have quit my supplementary job and can say with confidence that I am, in fact, a “writer,” the game has changed. People who just a few short months ago would have dismissed my offer to get lunch or treated me awkwardly at a cocktail party are now more than happy to know who I am and even talk to me about the phenomenon. I’ve heard 24-year-olds, without the slightest trace of irony, tell me that they just “can’t relate” to their friends with “jobs” instead of “careers” because they have “nothing to talk about.” They even refer to what they do as a “real job,” as though busting your ass for 12 hours a day paying your bills while you look on the side for a fulfilling career is not work. And what utter bull, the idea that you would have nothing to talk about with someone just because they work in a different kind of job than you. If careers and the office are really the only things you have to talk about, you should throw yourself off a tall bridge for how insufferably boring you must be. There are limitless things to talk about, and having a cubicle job shouldn’t be a pre-requisite to entering into the conversation.

What these people aren’t saying, of course, is the simple truth of the matter: They think they’re better than people who don’t have a professional job. They have entered into a different social strata, and want to maintain that status and, if possible, be upwardly mobile. The pinched expressions and fleeting looks of pity they reserve for the acquaintances and former friends who are having a difficult time making things work are the symbols of 2012 young urban professional noblesse oblige. But could anything be more repugnant in an economic climate where breadwinners of families are losing jobs and pensions at companies to whom they’ve dedicated 20 years? Where many people don’t have the option of moving back in with their parents, and have to move into the street? How dare anyone judge someone for working a job to support themselves, even if it isn’t the ideal. The people who are often the quickest to judge are, it must be noted, those who would prefer living off their parents’ dime in their “grown-up” apartment while they look for a job, rather than make ends meet. They are the ones able to be “funemployed,” because they don’t feel the boot of necessity on the back of their necks. They have been lucky, and have fooled themselves into thinking it was entirely by sweat and merit that they achieved and others didn’t.

I must clarify, of course, that not all professionals are like this. And interestingly enough, I have found some of the most humble and open people can be very professionally successful at a young age — albeit often in fields like engineering, technology, development, and construction. Fields that, while well-paying and competitive, are rather “humble” and requiring of vast technical knowledge that demands a certain unglamorousness. Generally speaking, the better dressed the people are for their office job, the more insufferable they’ll be at any given brunch.

It’s a depressing state of affairs, to be sure. It’s pretentious, and arbitrary, and cementing a social hierarchy that will be unchangeable by the time we all have families and half of us have moved to Connecticut. But right now, while we’re young and untethered–when we could socialize with anyone — to cling so desperately to a sense of “I am not like you” is nothing short of bleak. It says that, on some level, you’ve always wanted to feel better than others; you’ve always wanted a special class to belong to. You wanted a club to be a part of. And now, society has given you a simple way to pretend like you can no longer “relate” to a huge amount of your peers, when really, you are just enormously judgmental and petty. If anything, I’d hope that your nonprofessional friends feel they can’t relate to you — I know that I can’t relate to self-righteous tools, no matter how nice their office is. TC mark

image – Shutterstock

Chelsea Fagan

Chelsea Fagan founded the blog The Financial Diet. She is on Twitter.


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  • http://twitter.com/todd_clayton Todd Clayton

    Mega trueeee.  Love this.

  • Chocolate Shell

    I applaud this

  • Michelle

    I started my “professional career” well before many of my friends did. I felt the whole “I can’t relate thing” but it was for totally different reasons. I didn’t think I was better, or my job was better, or that what I was doing was more real or more important at all.

    Instead, I felt like I couldn’t keep up with their lives. I felt like I couldn’t relate because I was in a “worse” position. Sure, I had money and stability but I couldn’t keep up with the all night parties and I forgot what it was like to have a job that started after 8am or a boss that didn’t call me all day or night or expect me to check emails obsessively. They worried about beer budgets and I worried about having enough clothes to look passable every day of the week at the office. My life seemed boring and foreign to most of my friends all of a sudden. 

    This isn’t a “feel sorry for me for having a better job” rant either. Sometimes, you really can’t relate to people at different stages in their career or lives but not because you feel more or less superior. Simply because you live different lives. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=626011152 Amy Stage

      Well said!

    • Carly

      I couldn’t agree more – I started my professional career way before my friends and found that I was quickly the one that was isolated – judged for no staying out late and partying more often. I think this whole debate goes both ways, perhaps an insecurity issue on both sides?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=15722573 Caitlin Tremblay

      I’m in this position now. I go home at night after a 12 hour day at the office and pass out while my friends guilt trip me for not going drinking on a Tuesday night…and it makes me feel like a bad friend because I can’t do that stuff any more.

    • bee

      This is exactly how I feel!  Though I am not in a ‘professional’ office job (I’m only 19) – I am a K-3 literacy tutor – I serve 50 hours a week, attend college fulltime online, and do ballet 6 hours a week.  It’s exhausting, and frustrating.  Whenever I finally have a break, I want to hang out with my friends, but they no longer even wish to talk to me because I ‘pushed them away’!!!???  I never inteded to do so, obviously.  I’m just so freaking busy, yet when I finally have a break, it doesn’t matter.  Poopy.

      • Asdf

        Seems like they’re the ones who are being pretentious. Find better friends. Which is also the case; the issue goes both ways and is not exclusively the “haves” pushing the “have nots” away. It can, and does, go the other way.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=3320466 Ron Alfa

    nice work, this is really really great!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=18903206 Caitlin P. Abber

    This was spot-on. Great job!

  • arealjob

    i want a 6 month status report of any growth of “self-righteous tool” behavior as a result of your new job.

    because it happens to everyone.

  • http://rpulvino.wordpress.com Rich Pulvino

    Amen. This is great.

  • AJ

    So many thank yous for writing about this topic and writing about it well!

  • jesse

    i really like this, i don’t think it is good to think the things you do for money are your identity. i have had a lot of fun doing shitty jobs

  • Anonymous

    This article is spot-on but it’s interesting to note some of the sentiment in the comments from professionals who feel isolated from their peer group. I think a lot of professionals gaze wistfully at the lives of their peers who haven’t yet donned the golden shackles. It’s easy to feel, as a professional, that your life has become so “boring” you are no longer relevant to the cool kids who are having fun EVEN ON WEEKNIGHTS (gasp!). 

    One of the toughest things about going the corporate route is feeling ejected from the universe of fun-loving creative types you once (and still) identify with most strongly. It’s as if there is automatic skepticism about everything you say and do. A lot of the stereotypes described in this article (“the better dressed the people are for their office job, the more insufferable they’ll be at any given brunch”) are instantly applied the moment you show up for beers still wearing office clothes.

    Anyway, I know sympathy for corporate goons is probably a bridge too far but life is full of unexpected tradeoffs.

    • Asdf

      Well said. And the old adage goes: “The grass is always greener on the other side.” 

      When I wasn’t working in my career path, I couldn’t wait to break into it and yearned for someone to give me a chance. Now that I’m there, I certainly miss the personal time I once had. And I certainly do find it difficult to relate to those who can hang out in bars or parties every night. 

      I do not, however, find it difficult to relate to those working multiple jobs or 12 hour entry-level jobs just to get by. In this regard, I find myself having more in common with them in that I, too, dedicate more of my life to work than to entertainment.

      ‘A lot of the stereotypes described in this article (“the better dressed the people are for their office job, the more insufferable they’ll be at any given brunch”) are instantly applied the moment you show up for beers still wearing office clothes. ‘ 

      I don’t necessarily think this is true. I think it’s a characterization of the perspective people like this tend to have, and nothing to do with showing up to beers in your office clothes. Most places have a business casual stipulation; those that have higher demands often attract or breed pretentious, egotistical people. Precisely the types outlined in this article. Obviously that’s not exclusive and it is a stereotype, but I think it’s mostly accurate. 

  • Caroline T.

    you’re very insightful, always look forward to your posts on this site.

  • Charles Reinhardt

    In New York, the most judgmental people are almost always the children of unimaginably wealthy celebrities. They are the ones who  hold what are the basically “respectable middle class jobs” in the sought-after industries. In order to make it into the respectable middle class in your twenties in this city you have to have been wealthy in your teens. Those who weren’t are the ones struggling to make it onto any ladder in their twenties. 

    • MP9090909

       I’m very curious to see the break-down of college majors vs. number of internships held vs. current job. My Womens’ studies friend who worked at American Eagle for three summers doesn’t understand why she doesn’t have a job.

  • http://www.facebook.com/charity.edgar Charity Edgar

    Just until maybe 6 months ago, I always worked part-time at a restaurant; through high school, college — and beyond, in order to supplement my income living in DC (everything’s so expensive!) When I would meet people here (too often I find “it’s not who you are but who you know and what you do” :), I would only tell them I was a server. If they didn’t want to talk to me anymore….that was all I needed to know about them as a person. :)

    Oh and after 12 consecutive years of working in food service I can assure you: it’s so true that you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat the waitstaff!

  • Sal

    So all professional (excluding STEM workers) are arrogant, lazy, privileged bastards? My advice to the author: examine your own prejudices before you berate someone for theirs.

  • JessSaysHi

    Honestly, this comes off as one big fat whine. I’ve been on both ends and it is two different worlds. Waiting tables and unemployed and now working in a cushy job for a company with health benefits. The lifestyles are black and white. No one is “better” per say but they are absolutely not the same.

  • ade

    Wondering if you’re basing these observations in New York?  If so, I feel like the glamor associated with “having made it in New York” might exacerbate the phenomena that you describe.  Based in boston, i only see a very small minority of uber snobby young professionals being this aloof, those often being transplants from far away who came here almost begrudgingly for a job–much more often i see groups of friends being diverse with grad students, waitresses, low-paid office slaves, and 60k a year bankers.  

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_EUL6B7WZUNAHGMO5KRCKZTGP54 Damen Handle

      Same in Chicago. While there is definetely some yuppie social strata here, its not nearly to the degree being described in this piece. Maybe it is a new york thing.

    • Lol

      same in boston

    • Anonymous

      I, in fact, do not live anywhere near New York.

  • http://matadornetwork.com Carlo Alcos

    I appreciate the point you’re making, but do you see that you are also being judgmental? Everyone needs to just worry about what they’re doing and respect others for the decisions they make. If someone else looking down on you or disrespecting you for whatever work it is you do causes you discomfort, that’s your issue to deal with. The person on the other side of the equation has their own issues to deal with…that they need to feel superior to others is no reflection on you, it’s their own shortcomings. So understand that. Whatever it is you decide to do with your life, be truthful to it, be confident in it…if you can’t, maybe you’re doing the wrong thing. The definition of a person is not the way they go about making money. If you mop floors to make ends meet but have a passion for writing, you’re a writer. Period.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    next time i see you in your cubicle, i’m taking your stapler

  • Balls Deep Design

    I work in Advertising and all my friends are broke ass art school students. The only downside is not being able to go to nice restaurants or bars. But it saves me money, I guess.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1235640060 Angela Holmberg

    I agree completely.
    I knew there was a reason you are one of my favorite writers on Thought Catalog.

  • military

    I’m in the military, and I have met numerous people who have had it easy growning up. They come off as naive and pompous, only hanging out with those who have similar “funemployed” lives, whining about whatever little problem that enters their life. I’ve started to realize I have a large amount of contempt for people like this, and I’m trying to get over it, knowing my time and energy can be put elsewhere.

  • Asdf

    Generally speaking, the better dressed the people are for their office job, the more insufferable they’ll be at any given brunch.” 

    Yes, yes, yes! I agree with this 100%. This article rocks.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting read. 

    No one should make you feel bad about what you do to make a living. Unless you’re doing something that hurts others (stealing, murder, etc), then you should be proud. 

    That being said…..

    If you only take one thing from this post, and you’re a job seeker, take this: When the jobs created number comes out, remember that’s NET. 

    200,000 jobs created means that a number of jobs were lost, but a number greater than 200,000 jobs were ACTUALLY CREATED. 

    Even when the jobs created report says “the US lost jobs” JOBS WERE STILL CREATED (only more were lost).

    That number of created jobs – those are potential jobs for you. Don’t despair. 


    I have little patience for my FB friends who complain about not being able to find a job but show total unwillingness to move out of their small city, unwillingness to look BEYOND the web for job hunting advice and jobs, and the lack of discipline to go “maybe I don’t need to buy a $100 zombie costume for Halloween, and spend another $75 to go out drinking this year…”

    I live in Buffalo, NY. When I was searching for a job YES I preferred not to move, but the majority of my applications went out of state.  

    I called family, friends, even touched base with professors and even cold called to see who could give me a job. 

    The result?  About 5 job offers, only one of which I really wanted. 

    I’m guilty of many of the infractions made by the frustrated job seeker – it took me a while to get ‘offline’ with my applications, I sought professional career hunting advice only after failing miserably over and over again, I focused too much on Buffalo, and I turned down perfectly good jobs because I didn’t think they were “good enough” – maybe I was wrong, but I felt insulted at a $20,000 offer with no benefits after I just earned my MBA. 

    I am proud that I spent 40 hours a week at a part time job. I’m proud that I spent every morning and afternoon modifying my resume to fit various job postings. I’m proud that I literally pounded the pavement with my feet finding places to start my career. I’m proud that I found time to research small towns in the middle of Arkansas just because there was an off chance that some company would hire me to work at their office that serves Wal Mart. I’m proud that I moved out of my apartment and grew the balls to ask someone I hardly knew if I could stay at her place while she was away on business for months until I could get some decent cash flow (took care of place and paid a small monthly rent). 

    I missed hanging out with my friends still in school, and the friends who had jobs. THIS WAS THE SACRIFICE I MADE. Now? I have a job, so Friday and Saturday nights are MINE. 

    So when I hear my friends bitch who didn’t even try to do grad school, or simply refuse to give it their all to find a job – I have no sympathy. 

    I spent months scrimping and saving and finally I got a job. All it takes is a little sacrifice. 

    Sacrifice is totally worth it. It works. 

    Bitching on Facebook gets you nowhere.

    • Anonymous

      TL/DR peeps – I sympathize with you. Sorry for the long post. 

  • kate

    Our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations are laughing at us for thinking we have it rough…although I still feel like we have it a little rough. Meh.

  • Poopsux

    After a year of sending out resumes in hopes of attaining a job in any desired area of employment I finally got an Americorps job where I plant trees and stuff. My mother, who is usually very encouraging, immediately insulted everything about it and asked whether or not I knew that ‘high schoolers will get paid more than me’ while also adding ‘I just can’t wait until your real career begins’ which was pretty crushing. It really sucked to hear that because I was pretty excited because planting trees for money has always been a dream of mine. I  don’t really know what my point is except to say that career paths are confusing especially when outside forces  stifle your growth.

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