Notes From Serbia: A Different Take On The Career Treadmill

The following is a guest post by Tijana Milosevic, a Belgrade-based freelance writer. Before returning to Serbia, Tijana received an MA degree from the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University in Washington DC and worked with various public diplomacy and international communications organizations in Washington. She currently lectures in media psychology and media research at Singidunum University for Media and Communications in Belgrade. Tijana was trained with the Radio Free Europe in Washington and BBC World in London. She is also the recipient of the Goldman Sachs Global Leaders Award and numerous Open Society Institute scholarships.

Coming from Serbia — a country of six million in Eastern Europe that once belonged to a larger, war-torn entity called socialist Yugoslavia — I wasn’t fully aware of the notion of “career anxiety” when I came to Washington DC for my MA degree. Until one evening, that is, at the very onset of the school year.  A colleague of mine who was just turning twenty-seven raised his glass and voiced his fear: “Twenty-seven: no serious job and no stable career track.”

I was twenty- three at the time and could not comprehend why anyone would be obliged to have a “career track,” let alone a stable one, especially at (what I saw as) the tender age of twenty seven. In fact, I had never entertained the concept the way my American friends were referring to it.

While many Americans move out of their homes when they’re 19 to hit college, the East- European model is quite different.  Countries are smaller, and if there’s any migration it is directed typically towards the capital, so young people continue to live with their families through college. Because of high unemployment rates and poor standard of living, they aren’t expected to become financially independent, and many depend on their parents well into their late twenties or even early thirties -without a sense of shame that such state of affairs entails in the US. These factors reduce the relevance of what Americans often describe as “the treadmill feel”- an almost compulsive desire for continuous promotions, financial gains, followed by a rise in social status, and an increasing social anxiety.

In societies that are similar to mine, the American model is looked down upon as “harsh capitalistic,” “individualistic” and above all “alienated,” as American parents are not perceived to provide enough financial and emotional support for their children. In fact my family and friends had observed that I shouldn’t have chosen America, since I would probably feel better in Western Europe – where life is not as fast paced as in the US and capitalism still has a “human face.”

For example, Americans still work nine full weeks (350 hours) longer than West Europeans do and paid vacation days across Western Europe are well above the US threshold. The French still have the 35 hour working week, while the hourly productivity is one of the highest in the world. On the other hand, in the US an increasing popularity of employment therapy suggests that a high-paying job still comes first, as job issues “have a huge mental health component,” and therapists emphasize the importance of “toxic co-workers and the ramifications of massive layoffs.”

Numerous writers have outlined the dangers of isolation and careerism in the American society. In her famous work “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” Hannah Arendt equates careerism with lack of thinking that led to Holocaust: “what for Eichmann was a job, with its daily routine, its ups and downs, was for the Jews quite literally the end of the world. Genocide […] is work. If it is to be done, people must be hired and paid; if it is to be done well, they must be supervised and promoted.”

In Serbia even young and busy corporate-minded career professionals do not have to mark their calendars to meet with close friends.  One can always find the time for a spontaneous chat over coffee. Still, this laid back culture is now beginning to change with an increasing development of free market capitalism.  I still remember how strange it felt when I first came to DC and had to schedule coffees and lunches with people weeks or even months in advance. I found it odd that people rarely picked up the cell phone (which, granted, could be merely my personal experience, although many Americans confirmed it!) and would often leave the time and date of the call in their voicemails, which implied the other person might not get back to them in a while. I also came to discover that what Americans often referred to as “friends,” people from my region would prefer to call “acquaintances.” The term “friend” cannot be reserved for someone you meet once in a couple of months and do not know well enough to open up to.

Those experiences bring to mind a memorable line from from “Eat, Pray, Love,” a biographical story recently turned into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Julia Roberts: “You Americans know entertainment but you do not know how to enjoy yourselves,” Roberts plays a successful thirty-something American who decides to embark on a soul-searching trip to Italy, India and Bally after realizing her job, husband and newly bought house are not what she really wanted from life. Perhaps that’s a superficial take on what many would describe as an equally superficial Californian trend to “do something spiritual,” but the above quote shows there’s something to the American career frenzy that remains unique to the United States. The opportunity cost for “dolce far niente” or “the joy of doing nothing,” runs high.

Reflecting on this, I ran into an interesting take on “Eat Pray Love” by a 23-year old blogger: “We are not sympathetic to spiritual personal crises anymore. If you want to have an emotional breakdown about something, you better have a logical, elaborate and secular reason; otherwise you will be dismissed as whiny, annoying and laughable.” I wonder if her comment has to do with the lack of experience or the possibility that the generation entering the work force will not have an adequate justification for its desire to escape the treadmill feel– amidst all the superficial takes on this complex topic.


5 thoughts on “Notes From Serbia: A Different Take On The Career Treadmill

  1. Tijana

    Thanks for the comment! I lived in Missouri for almost six months and I agree that it is a big city dynamics that I describe here. Yet, I do think it is especially the case in the US primarily due to high work force mobility across the country. “Investing in friendships” for instance (using the term “invest,” which primarily has a financial connotation) is a collocation I first heard during my years in DC, and indeed, in my own experience, people describe they cannot afford to devote time to other people when they know they will not spend more than six months to a year at a given place.

  2. MLP

    I think that like a lot of foreigners you assume that DC is representative of America. I have lived in Washington a long time and I recently returned to where I grew-up. Life is a lot slower there and a lot of my old classmates still spend time together. People who are employed (which, sadly, is not everyone) are content to earn a decent living and aren’t climbing any ladders. Still, I have no desire to go back. I moved to Washington for the same reason that I came here. People and life here are a lot more interesting and it’s given me interesting opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Yes, people’s lives are timepressed, but that is the trade-off. The same can be said of New York, London, Tokyo and any number of other power centers.

  3. Tijana

    @Bernd: Thanks so much for the comment! I am hoping that you’ll be able to go back to Serbia some time in the future!

    @Yelena: I would like to believe that you can escape it-once you realize that it slowly takes over your life. That said, I think it is truly hard to control the feeling if you live in such a society and your environment follows the behavioral pattern.

  4. Yelena

    so true…! the scary thing is, the treadmill seems to be addictive. do you think you can ever TRULY escape it, as exhausting as it might be?

  5. bernd

    Bravo Tihana, I’ve been living in Serbia or 9 months, enjoying the very lifestyle you’re talking about. And cursing the shortfalls that come with it…
    Sve naibolje, Srdacno Bernd

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