Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
My relationship with TikTok is analogous to my relationship with church. I tend only to visit when invited by a third party, and while I’m not convinced its effects are ubiquitously positive, I’m glad it offers at least some participants comfort during their darker moments.
More to the point, I am not a true member of the congregation. TikTok belongs to Gen Z, the 11 to 26-year-olds now poised to inherit the Earth, or whatever is left of it once we millennials are sated (or rendered irrelevant). By the time news of the latest trend sweeping the platform reaches my ears its disciples had already spread the word far and wide, meaning that when I finally sat down, cracked my increasingly brittle knuckles and Googled “bare minimum Mondays,” I was met with page after page of results.
The premise, according to TikTok creator, startup founder and convert Marisa Jo Mayes, is this. Many of us spend Sundays making “insanely long to-do lists,” putting ourselves under “paralyzing” pressure to get our lives together. As a result, we hit Mondays primed for stress and unable to focus or engage properly with work. This sense of chaotic unease ripples across the week, costing us more in terms of productivity and vitality than any amount of effort can compensate for. Bare minimum Monday devotees instead make the conscious decision to coast on the first day of the working week, thus conserving their energy. “It was like some magic spell came over me,” Mayes explains. “I felt better. I wasn’t overwhelmed, and I actually got more done than I expected.”
Unlike “quiet quitting,” which was a misleading descriptor of the phenomenon it described, bare minimum Mondays do pretty much what the packet promised. The trends share one vital characteristic, though. They both present as evidence that the younger generation is made up of coddled self-care obsessives.
In practice, however, even Gen Z-ers who manage to execute bare minimum Mondays (or quiet quitting) will, in all likelihood, still enjoy an inferior ratio of effort to reward to the boomers and Gen X-ers who went before them. The same was true of millennials as they entered the workforce. The difference is, Gen Z knows what’s coming.
I’m a millennial, and like today’s entry-level workers, I graduated into sub-par conditions. In 2010, the effects of the Great Recession lingered like a persistent head cold and employers played fast and loose with laws regarding unpaid internships.
Securing remunerated work in any capacity was an ambition that necessitated relentless drive paired with zero regard for one’s own wellbeing. It was intensely competitive, and the triumph of landing a catch went some way to making up for the punishing conditions that almost inevitably followed.
The first several years of my working life passed in a haze of fluorescent office light and breakfasts consumed any time between 4 and 10 am consisting entirely of caffeine pills, Pepsi Max and coffee. I made less money each month than I’d be charged in rent a decade later and conducted my business and relationships in a permanent state of adrenalized exhaustion.
Concerned Pret A Manger baristas offered me free croissants, and lacking a permanent place to stay, I carried an overnight bag with me at all times. It was grueling, and I craved the stability afforded to my wealthier peers thanks to the flats their parents bought for them. But I also kind of loved it.
Cat Marnell, Manhattan’s notorious self-described pillhead slash “it girl” slash bestselling author (rinse and repeat, though I hear she’s clean now and good for her) captures this beautifully in her 2017 memoir “How To Murder Your Life.”
“Interning is strange heaven” she said, and she was right. It’s frenetic but suffused with aspiration, like you’re living the training montage that’ll culminate in your electrifying victory in a short few years. Or at least, that’s how it felt back in the late noughties and early 2010s.
Therein lies the difference. We millennials suffered for our embryonic careers, but though things were tough at the outset, we still clung to the promise that it would get better. Our Gen X and boomer elders all claimed to have “paid their dues” when they were young, but now they all owned houses! We had every reason to believe that at some point, our fortunes would improve and our dues would reap dividends. Gen Z enjoys no such delusions.
America remains the most overworked developed nation in the world. Productivity per employee has increased by 434% since 1950, email and Slack make it harder than ever to switch off after hours, yet the supposed rewards – like buying property – are increasingly out of reach.
What’s more, Gen Z’s older friends and colleagues, the millennials, do not bring with them the messages of hope they inherited from their Gen X forebears. A decade deeper into their working lives, many millennials remain financially precarious, still rent, can’t afford to have kids and gripe endlessly that the Covid-19 pandemic robbed them of the last vestiges of youth. We make for a pretty pathetic crystal ball.
All this to say, even those most vocal Gen Z-ers, those who repost TikToks eulogizing about the latest work-less trends, still probably work harder for less than their Gen X parents and boomer grandparents. And unlike millennials, who were at least motivated by the hope that it would all be worth it in the end, there’s no such light on the horizon for Gen Z. They have seen the future, and it’s a dog-tired millennial with a disquieting caffeine tolerance, and stale pastry crumbs on her coat.