Recently, I was talking to a friend who graduated from Duke in 2022. She’s in her first year working a real job. I asked her about it — how was work life different from college life? Was it harder? Easier? She brought up how many more breaks students have.
“In college, you get spring break, fall break, winter break, summer break– at work, you have the weekends and holidays. I used up all of my vacation days to visit my family for a week at Christmas.”
I don’t think about life after Duke too often. I am happy right now, and I prefer to focus on the present because I tend to spiral when I try to predict my future. I have no idea what my life is going to look like. I used to stress about it, but now I find it exciting. How liberating the unknown is, how thrilling that life has so many possibilities. All I know is that I want to live in a way that allows me time with my loved ones, time to read a book, time to try a new restaurant or to go to the movies or to sit in a garden. I know that I want my career to reflect my values: people over profit and equity in an increasingly unjust world. And I hope that these things will come to me if I continue staying true to my interests and working diligently.
But that conversation reminded me that life after college is not so far away. I’m a junior now, with only three semesters left here. In less than two years, I may very well be working a job that keeps me in the office from nine to five, nearly 51 weeks a year, with so much less time to do the things that make me feel whole. My university life will have dissipated into a daydream as I sit in a cubicle, making sure to tell every college student that I meet to “enjoy these years; college is the best four years of your life.”
Why wouldn’t we long for these years once they have expired? College life, especially here at Duke, is truly wonderful. I live in a walkable community, with everything I could ever need in a one mile radius. I live and study among some of the most intelligent and caring people I’ve ever met. I spend my days learning, and although much of my public policy studies revolve around the brokenness of our world, I know that I do not yet have to address it. Community and fulfillment — what more could I want out of life?
Yet soon my largest stressor will cease to be a cumulative final, set on the last day before a multiple-week break. I will have to worry about making enough money to pay my rent, bills and taxes. And from the way people talk — students, career fairs, the newest headline claiming “Millennials have almost no chance of being able to afford a house” — I’m scared that the things I want from life are incompatible. Is there any way for me to be fulfilled by my career and afford free time?
Now I know what this sounds like. I’m just another Gen Zer who doesn’t understand the value of work and responsibility. Complaining about a 40 hour work week? Many people work 80 or 100, and you don’t see them whining. In this world, you can’t have it all. You have to make sacrifices for success, in the form of less time with people you love, less time to take care of your body, less time to take care of your mind. Life isn’t easy. It was never supposed to be. You have to work hard and go the extra mile. Then, if you’re lucky, you can retire at 60 and spend the last years of your life catching up on lost time.
These are messages that I’m receiving as I’m entering my last months in college and trying to figure out what I want from my life and work. And I’ve subscribed to many of them, to some extent. I, like everyone else here, worked tirelessly to get here. Academic success is my biggest priority, and I study diligently.
At Duke, the most popular career paths are the epitome of the “grindset,” and sometimes it feels like not going down those paths is a personal failure. Many of my classmates will become consultants and investment bankers directly out of college, making six figures before they turn thirty. And many of us feel obligated to go down these paths because of the exorbitant cost of attending Duke. We have debt to pay off, parents to pay back — careers can provide that financial comfort. This isn’t solely Duke’s fault. America’s private education system is to blame.
But these occupations popular among Duke graduates are often 100 hour a week commitments. One investment banking blog advises first year analysts, “Expect to have very little free time outside of the office, especially during the first year on the job.” Yes, that includes most weekends! While the hours are strenuous, the cost is worthwhile for those who treat investment banking as a stepping stone for their career: junior bankers who excel in their position generally have a wide array of lucrative opportunities in front of them at the end of the analyst program.”
Another blog counsels entry-level consultants that achieving a work life balance is about “telling your team you need to work out at least 3 times a week, need 30 minutes to talk to a significant other at a certain time at night, etc.” And it’s not even about the money you can make right out of college– after all, when taking in the amount of hours worked by entry-level consultants (not counting the average of 10 hours of overtime per week worked by 88% of Big Four employees), the hourly wage is about $20-$24 per hour. It’s about the obscene amount of wealth you can access in the long run.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. It’s hard not to when you’re surrounded by it. Making that much money is tempting. But what’s the point of having so much if you don’t have the free time or energy to have a life outside of work?
As I sit writing this in the sunny Duke Gardens, all I can think about is the love that surrounds me. A young girl shrieking with laughter, holding on to her dad’s hand as they walk down a steep grassy hill. A couple sitting on the bench under a tree’s overhang. Two friends on a midday stroll. A group of teenagers throwing a football. I can’t help but think that this is what life is about. I couldn’t give that up. The scene conjures a quote from Christopher Ryan’s book "Civilized to Death" that we’re reading in my Ethics in Public Policy course: “Our desperate peregrinations are in search of a place much like the home we left when we walked out of the garden and started to farm. Our most urgent dreams may simply reflect the world as it was before we fell asleep.”
Students, we only have a few years in this place. We are incredibly lucky to be here, albeit fleetingly. I fear that life afterwards might not be so rosy. But I do have hope. Our generation, more than any other, has begun to wake up. According to an article by the World Economic Forum titled “Gen Z and the end of work as we know it,” we understand the value of work, we’re “just not as likely as other generations of employees to make compromises for a workplace that doesn’t fit their values.” More of us are starting to question the “hard work pays off” mantra as we see the rich get richer from the labor of their workers, and the gap between them widening.
We are the future of the American workforce. We will be the ones writing the rules. Maybe we can write them in a way where fulfillment and financial stability are compatible. The workplace could value the people who work there more than the profit they produce. This could look like strong unions, mutual respect and management that understands that we are all humans before we are workers.
We need not ever leave the garden.
Pilar Kelly is a Trinity junior. Her column typically runs on alternating Tuesdays.
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Pilar Kelly is a Trinity junior and an opinion columnist for The Chronicle's 118th volume.