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Young adults are burning out because of their high-paying 'dream jobs'

Given the high cost of education, the uncertain future of Social Security, and persistently stagnant wages, it’s no wonder that college grads these days see a high-paying job as a straightforward way to achieve financial security.

Two in three college students feel pressure to choose a major that results in a high-paying job, according to a new survey by Handshake, an early career network. And more than half of millennials and Gen Zers aspire to earn high salaries or be wealthy, topping their list of ambitions, according to a 2019 survey from Deloitte.

But those plans can backfire, experts say, with workers eventually hitting the brakes on the breakneck pace or burning out altogether on a career that they originally took to capitalize on the big salaries.

“Embarking on a career you're not really interested in has all kinds of risk in terms of life happiness,” Allison Cheston, a career advisor, told Cashay. “The main risk is going down a road you're not interested in and making it work because it pays more.”

Two in 3 college students feel pressure to choose a major that results in a high-paying job. (Photo: Uwe Zucchi/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Two in 3 college students feel pressure to choose a major that results in a high-paying job. (Photo: Uwe Zucchi/picture alliance via Getty Images)

‘This is the dream job’

Take Spencer Smith, 30, now the CEO at IRC Sales Solutions. He studied marketing at Western Michigan University with a sales and business marketing major, motivated by the possibility of getting a high-paying job after graduation. The degree, he said, was an investment.

“I wanted to make as much money as possible,” Smith told Cashay, “as quickly as possible.”

It didn’t help that he was graduating in the wake of the recession. He also lived in Detroit, which was hit hard by the financial crisis. His parents encouraged him to pursue a career that would provide financial freedom.

He landed a job straight out of college as a freight broker in Chicago. As long as he worked hard, he could earn a lot of money, he thought.

“I realized this is the dream job,” Smith said. “I want to work here forever ... I was rising the ranks, [getting] a bigger share in the company, and making decisions that really impacted the company.”

‘Slave to that paycheck’

The hard work paid off; Smith got promoted multiple times. But exhaustion was taking a toll. He started at 6 a.m. and sat at his desk for 10 hours straight.

“I would not move,” Spencer said. “I wouldn’t take lunch breaks.”

Spencer Smith, 30, used to work as a freight broker has his own company. (Photo: Courtesy of Spencer Smith)
Spencer Smith, 30, used to work as a freight broker has his own company. (Photo: Courtesy of Spencer Smith)

As more work was outsourced in his expanding company, Smith spent more time fixing mistakes made by workers who hadn’t been trained properly. He was working many times harder for the same money.

“I was a slave to that paycheck,” Smith said.

Smith was 25 when he had the highest gross year earning nearly $200,000 a year when he decided to quit because he was burned out even with a full-time assistant helping him. He still works in the same sphere, just at a slower pace and at a smaller company.

‘I was in the wrong industry’

Tabitha Blagdon, 34, faced a similar path. She decided to major in business at Rutgers University, it was a major that some of her peers were doing and her mentors recommended, and later got an MBA from UC Davis. She worked in asset management firms such as Merrill Lynch, Franklin Templeton, and BlackRock.

She was one of the youngest managers at her firm, but racing up the corporate ladder didn’t provide any job satisfaction. She didn’t need much time to realize that this job was not for her, an inkling she had from the beginning.

“I knew that I was in the wrong industry,” Blagdon said. “I knew there's nothing in that industry that would truly make me happy.”

Emotionally burned out, Blagdon honed in on what was making her unhappy. It wasn’t managing people; she loved doing that. It was the company culture.

“I wasn’t connected to the mission of the company,” she said, an increasingly important factor among younger employees, according to a survey from Glassdoor on company mission and culture.

Taking ‘a huge pay cut’

Instead of slowing down, Blagdon switched paths altogether. She moved from finance to website development and coding. She loved coding as a child staring at an age 10 and also designed websites while working so this field wasn’t so new to her.

To help make the transition to software engineering, she attended a coding bootcamp in San Francisco and got her start as a full-stack engineer. The move was scary, especially after achieving so much in her previous career. “You worry about what your peers would think of you,” she said.

Tabitha Blagdon, 34, moved from finance to website development and coding. (Photo: Courtesy of Tabitha Blagdon)
Tabitha Blagdon, 34, moved from finance to website development and coding. (Photo: Courtesy of Tabitha Blagdon)

It was also difficult to give up her outsized paycheck. “I knew if I had to start something new, I would take a huge pay cut,” she said.

Blagdon went back to school for a year and didn’t have an income during that time. At her first job as a software engineer she started with an entry-level salary.

But the change was the right thing to do. Blagdon, quite simply, is happier and feels more connected to the company’s mission. She quickly became an engineering team leader at Tally, financial services company, and later got promoted to engineering manager. Tabitha also started a company-sponsored affinity group to provide professional development and build a supportive community among the women employees.

“Working for a big global conglomerate,” she said, “you're just a number.”

Dealing with job burnout

Career burnout occurs when your job consumes your energy and happiness in a physical, emotional and sometimes social capacity.

While burnout cases are not all the same, there are a few things you can do to deal with career burnout, according to Rachel Montanez, a career coach focusing on burnout.

‘Work is not something to be’

Burnout often involves a sense of reduced performance and personal identity loss, in order to deal with that individuals should reconnect with the meaning of their work.

“I see a lot of burned-out individuals who struggle with separating their identity and worth from work,” Montanez said. “Work is not something to be, it's something to do.”

It's sometimes easier to appreciate the impact of your work when we are working in "helping professions," but truth is every job has some type of impact.

Reconnecting with the meaning of your work or finding a career path and company that fits your value is a way to deal with job burnout. (Photo: Astrid Riecken via Getty Images)
Reconnecting with the meaning of your work or finding a career path and company that fits your value is a way to deal with job burnout. (Photo: Astrid Riecken via Getty Images)

You can find it be asking yourself if you didn’t have your job what would happen to the consumer or your clients, according to Montanez. Think about a time where you were satisfied and happy with your career and identify why and what was happening.

Find the right company

After you identify your values think in what way your current or next job can meet them.

“Think about what you need from a career and company to get back on track,” Montanez said. “Perhaps, it's remote working, collaborative work, personalized professional development opportunity or diversity at work.”

Research well the company and its culture before applying for a job there. Do this by networking and secondary research and asking yourself intentional questions to understand if the company is a good fit for you.

Make small changes

Understand what you dislike about your career and try to change it. Create a living routine: split your day in morning, midday, late afternoon and evening and leave time for self-care, family time and for your health.

“Use technology to help create new habits in the areas of self-care, family, and health: three areas that are often heavily impacted by burnout,” Montanez said.

Whenever you find yourself find doing something that you don’t enjoy but it’s part of your job, create a condition around how, when and where to do it. This will give you some element of control when you feel like you don't have it.

Denitsa is a writer for Cashay and Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @denitsa_tsekova.

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