The viral TikTok videos go something like this: A never-ending loop of a young adult commuting, working, and preparing for bed, set to an audio clip from the cartoon “Spongebob Squarepants,” poking fun at the dreariness of a mundane routine.
For many Gen Z workers, this is their impression of working a traditional job — and it’s getting old. In the video trend crowding social media feeds since August, many are sharing their dull and unfulfilling view of the 9-to-5, a term many social media posts use more to describe a traditional career than the actual hours worked. And it’s garnering millions of views.
“It’s super repetitive. You don’t do the most you can with your skill set,” said Jesus Lares, a recent MIT graduate who said the videos are relatable. Lares worked several office jobs for major tech companies before quitting to start his own business. “It’s just not what I want to do with my life.”
The Globe spoke with several other Gen Z employees who felt working a 9-to-5 job meant sacrificing hobbies, submitting to lifelong monotony, and compromising their physical and mental health. Their generation, born roughly between 1997 and 2012, isn’t the only one to scorn the 9-to-5 (Dolly Parton knows). But, experts say it has been the most outspoken.
Thomas Kochan, an author and professor of work and employment research at the MIT Sloan School of Management, said many Gen Z workers experienced their first office job in a remote or hybrid setting during the COVID-19 pandemic, with employers offering more flexibility while less closely monitoring their workers. With much of that starting to wane, many are now questioning longstanding norms and whether a traditional career is still worth the personal sacrifices.
“I don’t think [younger workers] want to leave their priorities at the workplace doorstep,” Kochan said. “Because we’ve had tight labor markets and the pandemic, workers are taking action to try to build a new social contract ... They want the ability to control their schedules and better integrate their work, family, personal responsibilities, and interests.”
For some, like Lares, that means shifting careers entirely.
Lares hadn’t always felt this way. Working a 9-to-5 at a company like Google or Microsoft was once his dream. And he almost made it come true when he was offered a full-time position at Google after completing an internship.
But Lares rejected the offer. Now, he works up to 15 hours a day running his startup business Eraverse, a mobile app he says reimagines social media user interface.
Although Lares said he greatly respects companies like Google, he quickly learned the corporate life wasn’t for him.
“It seemed like whether you gave it your 110 percent or whether you just did the bare minimum, you’d get rewarded pretty similarly [at Google],” said Lares, 22. “I think that [Eraverse] could pay off more in the future and be a more fun life in the end.”
For Meryl Prendergast, 23, the 9-to-5 lifestyle was “soul-sucking.” The recent Northeastern University graduate said her first office job was a coop position where the expectation to work for almost 8 hours straight every day caused her and her coworkers to “dillydally” and dread the work.
When 2020 lockdowns allowed Prendergast to dedicate time to her passions — photography, art, and fashion — she never again wanted to work a job where her time and creativity was dictated by other people.
“Having jobs with these strict hours that everyone has to work just feels like it’s not utilizing our full productivity,” said Prendergast, who now runs a resin record business and works as a freelance artist and photographer. “I find a lot of comfort in knowing that I could pivot and change my day, depending on how I’m feeling.”
She doesn’t have the same security or stability that a traditional 9-to-5 job could offer, but it’s worth the sacrifice, Prendergast said. To save money, she plans to spend a year or two living in her childhood home in Canton, she said.
Many employers recognize the rising frustrations among young workers and are trying to help them create work-life balance.
Christina Luconi, chief people officer for Boston-based cybersecurity company Rapid7, said the company follows a hybrid model, and invests time and money into making the office a desirable place to be.
“We try to make the workplace actually a destination where you feel like your life is going to be enhanced because you’re coming,” Luconi said.
Rather than isolating employees in cubicles, Luconi said the Rapid7 office uses open space to foster conversation. Other perks include a lounge and barista bar allowing employees to form connections that can’t be replicated through remote work, Luconi said.
“Businesses are built on human beings, and doing that all behind a camera we’ve found is not totally advantageous to our customers, our company, or our people,” she said. “We embrace the fact that people want more flexibility in their lives. But we also think it’s really important to spend some time together in physical spaces, making sure that you’re collaborating, learning from one another, sharing ideas.”
That philosophy works for Junior Correia, a 24-year-old employee in the information technology department at Rapid7.
“I work best in an environment where I feel supported by my team,” Correia said. “And that’s one of the biggest things that drives me to come into the office.”
The job doesn’t hinder a healthy work-life balance, he said. In his downtime, Correia enjoys exercising and playing video games, and the Rapid7 office allows him to do both with an in-office gym and gaming room.
But not all Gen Z workers have such a positive experience with the 9-to-5. Grace Yang, a senior at Northeastern University completing a co-op position at a biotechnology company in Cambridge, said she quickly realized her distaste for the traditional office lifestyle after working for only a week.
The workday is most unbearable when Yang doesn’t have enough tasks to fill all eight hours of her shift, she said. Feeling idle makes Yang dread the idea of working 9-to-5 for the rest of her career. Instead of immediately pursuing a job in the biotech industry after graduation, Yang said she has decided to go to graduate school.
“One of the reasons why I’m applying to grad school is because ... I didn’t want to accept my fate,” Yang said. “You were not put on this earth to work at the office 8 hours a day for 40 years.”