That Happened: I Was Told There Would Be Beer

Google office

ColumnGraduating in the ’90s has defined my career.

Last month, I reached a huge milestone. I have kept the same full-time job for two years. Two whole years! For most 36-years-olds this would not be an accomplishment, but I have quit 10 jobs since graduating from college.

Mostly when I write about work here, I talk about wage disparities, lady CEOs and issues related to being a woman in a workplace. But, work is personal. It’s where most of us spend at least eight hours a day. So when I think about issues related to work, I think about how I got here—here being my full-time position with a healthcare startup in Chicago.

My journey starts with beer, or rather, the promise of beer. I graduated from college in the winter of 1999. I wasn’t worried about getting a job, and I had little reason to be. It was the ’90s. Armed with an English degree, so-so grades from a great school, good internship experience, and a special interest in Romantic poetry, I figured I was good. It took me about two weeks to land my first job.

I was in college during the sweet spot—after Kurt Cobain’s suicide and before Clinton didn’t have sex with that woman. During freshman year, I was told I had something called an email address and that I could go to the library to use it. I never bothered. By the time I graduated, I had a laptop with an Ethernet connection in my dorm room. Things were happening really fast and everything seemed possible.

It was the start of the dot com boom, and my generation was going to do the work thing differently. Every article I read promised me a cool office culture with a keg in the kitchen and ping pong table in the break room. I’d work hard and play hard, wear jeans every day and be surrounded by super-talented people lounging in brightly colored plastic chairs. Work was going to kick so much ass!

My first job was an entry level writing position in the marketing department of a magazine publisher in Washington, D.C. I would make enough to afford a roach-occupied (not all the way to infested) studio apartment in DuPont Circle. Signing that lease was the first of many times I incorrectly thought: I have arrived.

What I failed to take into account as I envisioned my career unfolding is that even if you are lucky enough to get a job with the makings of a cool culture, just beneath the exposed brick walls there are other factors that can totally mess things up. Some of these are: creepy co-workers, abusive bosses, absent bosses, bounced paychecks, shit commutes, weird buildings without real windows, boring work, too much work, not enough work. The possibilities for disappointment are literally endless. And those disappointments are why I kept chasing the job that the ’90s promised.

While there have been times I’ve been drunk at work, and I did once work in a loft office that had a pool table, 13 years and 10 jobs later, work has not lived up to the hype. As I am the only obvious common factor in all of the jobs that I have had, I could blame myself. But I don’t. I blame the promise of the ’90s, and most of all, I blame Fast Company magazine.

Talking about my experience with other people, I get a few reactions:

  1. Oh totally, I feel the same way! We were duped. (Form the 35ish crowd)
  2. Ha ha. Why the fuck would you think that? (From the 45ish crowd)
  3. Wow. That would have been amazing, it took me a year to find a job and it’s not really in my field. Oh, and I lived with my parents for a while. (From the under 30s)

There are a few reasons that I have made it the two-year mark: some great co-workers, access to natural light, the ability to wear jeans, CEOs who don’t refer to me as “girl” (or worse—and yes, that has happened), fair wages, health insurance and work that I am interested in for a mission I believe in. But the biggest reason is that I finally stopped chasing the ping pong ball and gave up on the idea that I want to be surrounded by drunk people in the office.

The dream of the ’90s is alive and well in Portlandia. But here in Chicago, I’m good with life in 2013. I have learned to assess jobs for their realities, both good and bad. I have started to understand that my job doesn’t need to be perfect, and that there’s probably no such thing. I have built space for myself to do what I love (you’re reading it now) outside of my normal workday. And yes, when those Best Places to Work stories come out with photos of yoga rooms, days free of designated work hours and vegetarian snack bars—today’s version of ping pong and beer—I get a twinge of… Oh! Maybe! But then I remember what I have learned and resist applying for job number 11.

Image: Tommytoy