From The Straits Times    |

Artwork: Jane Tan

Turning 30 is certainly a cause for celebration… but what are we celebrating exactly? In ‘My Dirty 30s’, columnist Samantha Y. reflects on the good, the bad, and the downright ugly truth about what this decade spells for “ageing” millennials like herself. 

I joined the workforce in the early 2010s when hustle culture was at its peak. We all strived to be #girlbosses, with our side hustles and cape blazers. Indulging in hobbies during our free time was considered a carnal sin, and the general consensus seemed to be that you don’t deserve a pay raise if you aren’t OT-ing at least twice a week. 

Not surprisingly, the term “burnout” became part of our professional lexicon a few short years later. It was pretty reflective of what I felt back then as a young PMET. I really tried leaning into the whole side hustle culture — I taught tuition after my nine-to-five as a communications executive, at least three days a week and on the weekends too. While it was good money, I soon realised that it just wasn’t sustainable for me to start my days at 7:30am and end them at 11pm. 

Joining the rat race

About a year and a half later, I made the switch to start my career in media publishing. Knowing that the side hustle life ain’t for me, I dropped all my tuition assignments and threw my all into my full-time job, fully aware that the only way I can grow my income is by climbing the corporate ladder to reach the next pay grade.

If I could go back in time, I would tell my naive 24-year-old self that unfortunately, hard work rarely gets you there. And that is the harsh reality for most of us in the rat race. 

Back then, my direct supervisor and upper management made it clear that the only way I could get a promotion is if I went above and beyond my current job scope and “value-add” to my role. Fair enough, right? 

So I upskilled by volunteering myself for courses, took on projects that had me working on multiple consecutive weekends, and ambitiously juggled a workload that is way too much for one person. When a bigger role with managerial responsibilities opened up, I sat my boss down and told her that I would like to be considered for it. 

From my point of view, I had done everything right. Therefore, it only made sense to promote me since I was familiar with the team and the day-to-day work. I could hit the ground running, I reasoned. Instead, I was told that I was “too junior” and lacked certain skills required for the role. The company eventually went with an outside hire, which was a punch to my gut. I stuck around for a couple more years and eventually got that promotion after my predecessor was moved to another team, but by then, I was extremely bitter and disillusioned. 

So I started looking for other opportunities. The extra skillsets that I had acquired in my strife for the next promotion turned out to be rather advantageous during the job search, so it wasn’t all for nought. Unfortunately, I started my new job just as Covid struck, and was unceremoniously retrenched just two weeks in. Enough time has passed for me to look back at this and laugh at my piss-poor timing, but back then, it was a huge blow to my entire being.

That led me to my second biggest realisation about the professional world: your career progression doesn’t just hinge solely on your performance. There are a lot of other external factors at play, such as the company’s financial health, expansion plans, office politics and the state of your industry. It’s not as simple as “do X and you will get Y”, like my ex-boss had led me to believe. 

Overlooked, overworked and underpaid

So there I was, 30, flirty, and unemployed. I was desperate to rejoin the rat race, so I jumped at the first offer of a full-time job. In hindsight, I really should have turned it down. I had heard many horror stories from ex-employees about this team — like how it had unreasonably high KPIs and an incompetent team leader, which resulted in its high turnover rate. But hey, beggars can’t be choosers, and I threw myself into the work with twice the zeal I had. 

Before long I was back in that vicious cycle, where I burned weekends on big projects and took on more than I should. I was such a reliable worker bee that others had no qualms about dumping some of their responsibilities on me either. All of that created a perfect storm for a severe mental breakdown — I had to seek psychiatric help and went through a year of therapy and medication to start feeling like myself again. 

That was the wake-up call I needed to stop being such a workaholic and de-prioritise my career. I had spent almost a decade burning my candle at both ends, and all I have to show for it is a mental illness and a below-than-average wage (I checked, the median monthly salary for PMETs in 2021 is $6,318). I bit the bullet and gave my notice without having another job lined up. 

Leaning out instead of leaning in

Thanks to therapy, I was a lot more mindful about my search for the next job. I can’t exactly “lie flat” because I have to keep up with my expenses, but I did choose to let go of all the “shoulds” that weren’t serving me — mainly the idea of what my career should look like and what my job title should be in my 30s. After all, my identity and worth don’t solely rely on those things, so perhaps it’s time I learn to let my job be just that — a job. 

I was lucky enough to be offered a position that is still within the industry, albeit with a smaller and younger company. I still work overtime on occasion, but by and large, I’ve stopped trying so hard to prove my worth for the next promotion. I wouldn’t call this quiet quitting per se; it’s more like leaning out. 

To my surprise, my career isn’t exactly suffering from my silent rebellion. In fact, it’s the opposite — I’m actually thriving. I still got a small pay raise in the first year due to a good appraisal. I’m now drawing my highest salary ever with a good work-life balance to boot, all because I care less about work. What gives? 

I’m not the only one with this curious outcome either. Over the past two years, a handful of my friends have quit their jobs due to burnout, either pivoting to a different career or “downgrading” to a job that is less demanding. We’re all happier for it, with minimal to no impact on our income or lifestyle. However, I would add a caveat that we were all high-performing workaholics who suffered from some degree of anxiety, so not everyone might get the same result if they choose to lean out. 

Don’t get me wrong, having ambition isn’t a bad thing. And your twenties is arguably the best time to dedicate yourself to your career because people generally have fewer commitments at that point in life. But if you find yourself sacrificing your health, relationships or sanity for your job with very little reward in return, then take it from me — it is not worth it. Don’t hold on in hopes of that next promotion, because what if it doesn’t happen? 

There’s really no shame in quiet quitting, leaning out, or whatever term the LinkedIn crowd has coined for setting your boundaries. Life goes on, only this time, you’d actually have time to live it.