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Success, Happiness, and Why Today’s Twenty-Somethings are Trying to Get it Right


Success is an elusive concept that means something different to each and every one of us. But what about that old American dream that tells us success is a by-product of opportunity and hard work?

Does this mean because a person has opportunities and works hard that they are inherently successful? Is success synonymous with a cushy job with a nice paycheck and job security? Most importantly, how does happiness fit into this picture?

The “Successful” Life Formula

Many of us were raised on the assumption that there is an immutable blueprint for how our lives will pan out: work hard in school, ace standardized tests, go to a good college, earn a degree, and settle into a job that makes us enough money to support our families.

Some of us were taught to pursue our passions, no matter the salary. Others were taught to go into fields like banking or engineering because what matters most is how early you get to the office and your prestigious job title. Still others were taught to pursue jobs that — no matter how mind-numbingly boring — would exist forever, like with the government.

But as we grew up, we discovered the formula was flawed.

The power of an overinflated sense of importance.

Older individuals look back on their own mistakes and shake their heads at today’s twenty-somethings, claiming we lack “a sense of urgency to get to the next level.”

Time is abundant, they say, until you run out of it, they say. And while this is true (yes, today’s twenty-somethings know time isn’t bottomless like Saturday’s mimosas), we also think it doesn’t mean that we should be rushing into jobs we don’t want for financial security we aren’t guaranteed.

Of course there are twenty-somethings (as well as thirty-somethings and beyond) who would rather spend the day binging on Netflix than playing the corporate game.

But on the other hand, we have twenty-somethings who are ambitious, who understand urgency, and who take advantage of opportunities.

Yet many of them are not happy with what they do despite the high paychecks they earn. Even after following the formula precisely, their “success” is missing one crucial element: happiness.

The difference between “paying your dues” and knowing this career path isn’t for you.

Dexter Powers, a 22-year-old ex-Day Trader who worked for base pay plus commission says, “I recently quit trading because it’s not for me.” Powers says his typical office hours were 9:30am to 5pm, but he often needed to be at work by 7am as well as listen to Podcasts and read daily summaries on his commute home.

He continues,

“I think that this is a very important decision for a 20-year-old because it dictates how you will work the rest of your life. A more tangible way to help you with this decision is to look at the  executive level people in your company and really analyze them. Is their lifestyle something that interests you? Could you see yourself in their shoes? Does what they do motivate you? If the answer is yes, then you know what to do, you just need to do it.”

This outlook suggests we know that paying our dues is a necessary part of ending up in our dream jobs one day, but we also know when we should stop and reevaluate our circumstances, even if that means giving up a great opportunity.

It’s not that Powers didn’t recognize what he needed to do, it’s that day trading isn’t what he saw for himself in the future.

He says day trading, “is a great job, but not a great career… I am looking to build a career and since this is not my God given gift, I’m out.”

If coffee runs and making copies fall under paying our dues, we’ll do it. But when we looking into our futures, and can’t see ourselves in our boss’ position, we will jump ship sooner rather than later.

Overqualified, underemployed, and underestimated.

Despite working hard to build a career foundation, enhancing our skills, and endless networking, we are still the most underemployed generation yet.

Those of us who can find positions we are qualified for (and make it through three rounds of rigorous interviews) often find our abilities are underestimated and discarded by our older co-workers. Our bosses and supervisors look down on us because of our age, even though we have bachelors, certifications, and even masters degrees in many cases.

Ciara Kennedy, a 23-year-old Documentation Specialist says the most difficult part of her job is the “tension among coworkers who think I am too young to have my job and try to encourage me to step into a lower position.”

It’s hard enough to start a new job in the first place, so why do current employees make our workplace transitions even more difficult?

Furthermore, job listings keep increasing the qualifications for jobs that even ten years ago only required a high school diploma. Why should someone with a college degree be doing a job someone without a college degree is qualified to do? They shouldn’t.

Companies add degrees to their position qualifications because it shows commitment from the applicant (and because they can, thanks to the increasing numbers of job seekers with degrees), but it only causes more problems for college graduates.

We didn’t go to college to be file clerks.

Our degrees and references show that we are in fact qualified for the position we were hired for, even though we are discounted for our age (but hey, Harry still competed in the Triwizard Tournament — that should count for something).

Before you say, we want too much too soon, consider this: would you spend 10 years working at the bottom of the barrel for a company that couldn’t even guarantee you a job 10 years down the line? Probably not.

Still, Kennedy remains hopeful despite her co-workers attitude, “It is important to advance your career, but not at the expense of your happiness.”

So, if we aren’t in it for the money, what are we working for?

Success, happiness, and why we’re trying to get it right.

We witnessed our parents’ mid-life crises, which sparked thoughts about our own futures; is “success” truly synonymous with happiness? We know money isn’t everything.

Even research shows that while emotional well-being (defined as “emotional quality of an individual’s everyday experience”) rises with income, there is no difference after a paycheck of $75,000 per year.

A higher income improves life satisfaction, but not happiness. Maybe this is why many twenty-somethings look for happiness in their careers; they already know they won’t find it in their paychecks.

Perhaps today’s twenty-somethings recognize the importance of happiness and how it fits into the formula for success, unlike our predecessors in the workforce. Even the twenty-somethings who work hard, get promoted quickly, and can pay their bills recognize the importance of happiness in everyday life.

Jasmine Yew, a Hardware Engineer at a top tech company says, “At the end of the day you want to be happy, what’s the point of working if I spend all of my time at [work].”

She also says, “Thinking long-term in the future … I’m willing to take a little pain now. If I can retire earlier because of this, it’s like paying it forward.”

Moving forward.

Even though some people try to tell us we’re unhappy because our parents told us we were special snowflakes and little leagues handed out participation certificates, we know our unhappiness is oversimplified.

Maybe we would be happier if we were working jobs we are actually qualified for, if we didn’t have to pay off hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, if we could actually afford to pay rent, or if we didn’t have to apply to entry-level positions with a “minimum of two years experience.”

But we don’t have time for maybe.

We have to be competitive, we have to build our brand, and we have to make ourselves stand out, because the people we are trying to impress and get noticed by (yes, we mean you who make fun of us for trying to live up to the unreasonable standards you’ve set for us) don’t want mediocre, they want the cream of the crop.

Despite our walls full of “you tried” awards, we know we can’t all be the best. But believe me, we will always try.


About the Author

Nicole Booz

Nicole Booz is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of GenTwenty, GenThirty, and The Capsule Collab. She has a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and is the author of The Kidult Handbook (Simon & Schuster May 2018). She currently lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two sons. When she’s not reading or writing, she’s probably hiking, eating brunch, or planning her next great adventure.