Christine Lieu, Kareem Frederick and Ariette Hung. (Photos, left to right: Jenny Jay/The Double Jay Collective; courtesy Kareem Frederick; courtesy Ariette Hung)

Topics: Ethical Living | Society

How millennials are redefining job success

Achieving career advancement is difficult — and potentially hard on mental health — when "the ladder no longer exists"


Kareem Frederick always knew he wanted to work in media. But after studying radio and television in university and spending seven years in the industry, the Torontonian quit his production coordinator job to become an electrician. 

This isn’t the career path the 32 year old ever expected to be on, but it felt like “the right thing to do,” he said. 

Frederick was lucky to land a job just six months after graduation. But a few years into his role, a larger corporation took over and the layoffs that followed dramatically changed his position. 

“It became very stifling,” he said. “I kind of lost my creative drive because it had been stamped out over the years… so I had to change trajectories a bit.” 

Frederick, like many millennials, was told his whole life that if he just worked hard, he would succeed. But in a job market that’s plagued with high competition, layoffs and contract jobs, that sentiment is no longer valid.

While every generation has had its issues, Toronto-based career coach Catherine Thorburn said millennials have to contend with a crowded playing field. 

“Nowadays, the challenge is there are a lot of baby boomers still in senior roles, and people are living longer so they are often working later in life,” Thorburn said.

“There are also fewer senior positions because there are fewer big companies in existence today. So many companies have merged together so there aren’t as many players in the market as there were before.”

Working in the electrical trade was something Frederick had been interested in since he was a kid. But the career switch was still not an easy decision.

“You get hammered with this idea about what it is to be a working person, so you think, ‘OK great. I’m going to go out and do it,’” he said. “And then you realize everything’s changed: the workforce, society, all expectations. So you have to evolve and adapt as well. I think that’s what I’m doing.” 

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Like Frederick, Ariette Hung has felt disheartened by the state of the job market. A qualifying registered psychotherapist in Toronto, Hung also runs an events and wedding coordination company on the side. She’s felt the stress of always having to prove herself throughout job interviews, probation periods and performance reviews. 

“It always [feels] like you [are] replaceable,” said Hung, 25. “No matter if you had a job, if something happened to you (maternity leave, move to another country, or simply, your contract ends) someone else would take your place.”

But that’s not her only gripe. Unpaid internships, unfruitful interviews, and a lack of fair paying jobs have made her career outlook feel “slightly daunting and discouraging at times.”  

All these obstacles make it harder for millennials to climb the ladder. And some don’t even know how to handle the challenges of the current job climate. 

As a result, “millennials will react differently when they realize they won’t always get what they want or think they deserve,” said Ottawa psychotherapist Daniel Nadon

“For instance, some will quickly grieve the loss of their idealized workplace and make peace with where they’ve landed; others will move around from one job to another; others can stay put, but poison the well as they perhaps passive-aggressively demonstrate their discontent,” he said.  

The reality check millennials face when they start working might not necessarily lead to mental health problems, but “it could certainly add to someone’s distress,” he added. 

Brittany Shields, a Toronto career counsellor at Canada Career Counselling, has seen first-hand how society’s definition of success can take a toll on everyone. 

These messages and beliefs can create external pressure to obtain or ‘live up’ to unexamined expectations of career success, which may not align [with their] values,” she said. “When millennials are in positions that are not aligned with their definition of success or values we often see that it decreases self-confidence and increases low moods, stress and anxiety.”

Frederick has certainly felt some outside pressure about what his career should look like. Although his parents are very supportive of him, they still wanted a justifiable reason for why he was quitting the corporate life. 

“The conversation I often have with people of my parents’ generation or even people slightly younger is that that ladder no longer exists,” he explained. “Loyalty to a company and you being rewarded for said loyalty, it doesn’t happen anymore, so you find that your pathway to ‘success’ doesn’t exist,” he said.

“You realize everything’s changed: the workforce, society, all expectations. So you have to evolve and adapt as well.”

Success is often viewed as a linear progression and measured by income, titles and prestige

This traditional view has been ingrained in us since we were young, Shields said. It’s through “messages and beliefs from family, friends, teachers, social media, TV [and] movies” that we form our ideals about success, she said. 

Working hard is often emphasized as the key to achieving greatness. But work ethic alone isn’t enough. Accordingly, some millennials have started to carve out their own paths to success. 

“Success is no longer just about climbing the corporate ladder or making a certain figure per year,” Shields said. “More and more at Canada Career Counselling we are seeing a trend that clients of all ages desire purpose and meaning in their career.”

Graphic designer Christine Lieu left her corporate job to run her own business last year. Lieu used to measure success by her salary, but now, making money isn’t her only goal. “It’s more about how I can impact my clients,” she said. 

Lieu decided to change course for multiple reasons. “I’m always looking for that next challenge and I [felt like I] hit that ceiling in a sense,” the 27 year old said. “I was also feeling like I was getting burnt out. I was working both as a graphic designer and as a digital associate producer but being paid one salary, and my freelancing was picking up at that time, so it just wasn’t sustainable.”

Burnout has become so prevalent in the workforce that the World Health Organization recognized it as a legitimate diagnosis earlier this year. 

There’s no harm in following a less traditional path to success. However, Shields warns that self-esteem may be negatively impacted if you don’t realize that success looks different for everyone or are comparing your definition to someone else’s. 

Hung has redefined success on her own terms. Since counselling can be mentally and emotionally exhausting, she started her wedding coordination business as a creative outlet. For that same reason, she also does freelance copywriting and occasionally teaches English as an additional language on the side.

“No job is going to be without its stresses and you’re never going to be 100 percent happy, but you should, for the most part, find joy in what you do,” she said.“For me, it’s serving others.”

Frederick is in full agreement. “I don’t look at success as a ladder anymore,” he said. “As long as you’re working and living and doing something that brings you some kind of joy, I see that as success.”

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct Brittany Shields’s job title; she is a career counsellor, but not a psychologist. 

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  • says:

    We no longer live in a society where you work as a "lifer". Corporations have left North America high and dry, for "lifers" who are expendable and very cheap.
    I also think Millennials do have a higher expectation of "reaching the top" as soon as they enter the workplace. That doesn't settle well with those who have worked their way up the ladder. With job competition in the 70's and 80's, post secondary education also came into play. Janitor?, 3 years of college. Teacher, nurse? 4 to 6 years of university.

    Unfortunately Millennials are not given the chance to see what's available to them. There always seems to be a flooding of the job market especially in the "technology" field.
    I see the current trend is "trades" once again, but even these fields get flooded from time to time because of the downturn of the economy. This is quite likely the reason "Boomers" had a good run a making a living, the economic situation was well suited for them.