“I think I’m just not meant to work.”
I blinked at Remi as he sat on the couch opposite from me. Remi was 26 and, like many Gen Z folks, had never spent more than 18 months at the same job. In his short professional life, he’d gone from a nonprofit that advocated for criminal justice reform, to one that championed social work education, to one focused on reducing the impact of climate change.
When he started therapy with me, he was having panic attacks several nights a week in anticipation of going into the office each morning. Once he got to work, the panic typically subsided, but he found himself staring at open documents on his screen, so uneasy that he couldn’t focus. Eventually, he’d be pressed by a deadline and force himself to get the work done, but only after enduring hours of anxious, unproductive time. On top of this, he struggled with speaking up in meetings, paralyzed about saying the wrong thing.
Now, several months into our work together, Remi had stopped having panic attacks, was able to focus on tasks, and, while he didn’t exactly enjoy speaking up in meetings, could do so when needed. But the dread of going to work continued. We were discussing this dread when he told me, flat out, that he didn’t think he was cut out for work. Not just his current job, but work, period.
His statement caught me off guard. Um, you have to work, I thought. You can’t just sit around all day. Aloud, I said, “Tell me more about that.”
Remi shrugged. “I don’t know. Every job I’ve had started off exciting, but then I just end up hating it. It’s dumb that I have to have a job to live, you know? There’s so much better stuff I could be doing with my time.”
Normally, this kind of statement would be an entry point for deeper exploration. We’d identify his values and talk about how he wanted his job to fit into the larger fabric of his life. We’d talk about his goals for work and career, and how he could make space for other parts of his life that mattered to him. But we’d already had those conversations. Remi knew he wanted to work in an organization with a meaningful mission, with coworkers he liked, where he had a flexible schedule that gave him time for his hobbies and his partner, and that afforded him a salary to meet his financial obligations and goals. His current job met all those qualifications.
As I pondered how to help him, I thought about how Remi wasn’t my only client to tell me that work just wasn’t for them. A few months ago, another client had said that they weren’t “built to work,” and then laughed to herself. And it wasn’t just clients. In a meeting with colleagues, one clinician had asked another what their dream job was, and the response was one I’d seen bandied about on social media: “I do not dream of labor.”
Contrast this to five years ago, when I had a slew of clients feeling guilty for not working more than they already were. Jenny felt she was “doing nothing” with her life because she worked a corporate job and didn’t have her own business. Monica felt she should have some sort of side hustle, despite being financially secure and not having an express interest in anything else. Debra and Paul both had high salaries, but while Debra wanted to step back from the grind to have more time together as a family, Paul insisted they continue to work long hours so they could retire early, despite this taking a toll on the marriage. At the time, “hustle culture” was the dominant social current. Social media messages promoted entrepreneurship as the way to make more money, find freedom from the corporate machine, and express your individuality. Side hustles, which have always been a way for low-income folks to make ends meet, became the expected norm for the middle class, too. The #girlboss was in.
At some point, this grind culture ground to a halt. While some clients still wouldn’t mind being entrepreneurs, the focus has shifted from being your own boss so that you can make more money doing work you enjoy to being your own boss so you can work fewer hours and not be a sucker for the man.
Of course, most people aren’t in a position to open their own business, and far fewer can afford not to work. But the cultural messages—that work itself is a scam, and real life is happening somewhere else—persist, and the effect has left many with a sense of malaise.
Disillusionment around work isn’t coming out of thin air. Nationally, workers report that wages aren’t keeping up with the cost of living. For decades, large companies have engaged in mass layoffs, often while posting record profits for shareholders. On top of this, most companies don’t offer the same benefits or stability afforded to boomer and earlier generations. The cultural narratives around work are shifting because the reality of work is shifting.
At the time of my session with Remi, I hadn’t yet thought about what the changing social landscape meant for the therapy room. I knew it wouldn’t be helpful to challenge his statement about work directly—at best, he might get defensive; at worst, he’d feel unheard. And I wasn’t yet sure how much my reaction to his comment was about me and my own stuff.
Like everyone else, I have my own story about work. For starters, I love my job. Therapy is a playground for my curiosity and a whetstone for my empathy. It’s part of who I am. Even the hard days, maybe especially the hard days, make me feel deeply privileged to do this work. But even if I didn’t love doing therapy, I’ve never viewed not working as an option.
My grandmother used to tell the story of how she left my grandfather, not because of his getting drunk and beating the family dog, and not because one winter, he pulled all her coats from the closet and set them on fire in the yard, but because he stopped working. “I’m not going to lay up under no man that doesn’t work,” she’d said. I grew up viewing an absence of labor as shameful and unacceptable.
As I sat there with Remi, I was mindful of not wanting to push this judgment onto him. I held space as he briefly processed his feelings. Over time, his dread subsided, kicking up again only when he’d return from a vacation. The good news was that the dread didn’t eat up his evenings the way it had in the past. He still didn’t love his work, despite its checking all the boxes of what he wanted out of a job, but his discomfort no longer got in the way of his enjoying his life.
Looking back, I would’ve liked to approach Remi’s statement differently. I’d want to make transparent how the culture around work is shifting and ask how he was experiencing these changing narratives. I’d invite him to reflect on how the idea of “not being built for work” had coalesced in his mind. I’d ask him what it felt like to participate in this capitalist system, and how he made sense of that in relation to his own values and ethics.
I don’t know if these conversations would’ve changed the outcome for Remi. Maybe he would’ve continued to experience periodic dread around work. Or maybe it would’ve opened him up to find a job he felt “built” for. Maybe it would’ve motivated him to exit the workforce entirely: live off the land. I’m not sure, but I wish we’d had those conversations. After all, the work of all good therapy is helping clients craft their own story amid the current of cultural narratives.
Erica R. Turner, LMFT, is the owner of Rosewater Therapy, as well as an Adjunct Faculty member in the Couple and Family Therapy program at the University of Maryland, College Park. She’s the cofounder of Therapy is Not a Dirty Word, an events and advocacy program that works to bridge the gap between therapists and the public. Visit www.rosewatertherapy.com.