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Why Online Job Searching Can Feel Like Such an Existential Nightmare

July 21, 2019


Finding romantic love in the 21st century and finding a job in the 21st century have a lot in common. 


"Even in the late 19th century, marriage was more practicality than rom-com, whereas today’s daters are looking for nothing less than a human Swiss Army knife of self-actualization. We seek 'spiritual, intellectual, social, as well as sexual soul mates,' the sociologist Jessica Carbino told The Atlantic’s Crazy/Genius podcast. She said she regarded this self-imposed ambition as 'absolutely unreasonable.'”


These words came from a recent essay, "Why Online Dating Can Feel Like Such an Existential Nightmare," written by Derek Thompson for The Atlantic. Thompson makes a nuanced case that online dating isn't necessarily good or bad, it just is.


The Good: Being able to short-circuit the process of meeting people who satisfy non-negotiable criteria, especially if you are a minority (e.g., LGBTQ living in a mostly straight area). Online dating also expands the playing field for everyone. People used to meet through family, friends, and religious organizations. Who is to say that these old ways of meeting people were any better than online dating? Their scope is certainly narrower than all single people on the internet; and a church's or neighbor's algorithm is less sophisticated than an online dating one. 


The Bad: Though it can be helpful for the reasons above, the expansive scope and sophistication of online dating often gets in the way. "When in the 1840s the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called anxiety 'the dizziness of freedom,' he wasn’t slamming the door on modernity so much as foreseeing its existential contradiction: All the forces of maximal freedom are also forces of anxiety, because anybody who feels obligated to select the ingredients of a perfect life from an infinite menu of options may feel lost in the infinitude," writes Thompson. This is distressing enough as it is, but it's made even worse by the fact that most online dating profiles are manipulated to portray an image, both literally and figuratively, that is⁠—at best⁠—an exaggeration from real life.


This is further exacerbated by the fact that, according to Marist polling, 73 percent of American adults believe in the concept of a soul-mate, or a one-and-only perfect partner. This number increases to 80 percent for people under 30. If you believe that there is a singular perfect person for you somewhere in the universe and you literally have access to all the single people in the universe, well, you might end up searching forever. It's not surprising that research shows people who believe in a soul-mate are less likely to end up in enduring relationships than those who have a lower bar for continuing to see someone.


It's fascinating that everything about finding a partner applies more or less directly to finding a job.


Similar to marriage, a job used to be more about practical concerns (e.g., making money) than existential fulfillment. Today, online job searching, powered by websites like LinkedIn—along with a culture that says your job should be everything and perfect (and that you should feel this by week one)—leads people to hop from one job to the next, constantly seeking the right fit.


Much like in dating, online job-searching isn't good or bad, it just is.  You don't want to date people who suck and you don't want to be in a job that sucks. You don't want to feel like you have to stay in a relationship that isn't a good fit and you don't want to feel like you have to stay in a job that isn't a good fit. If you are a minority (for work: skill-set; for love: sexual preference) then online tools can be particularly beneficial. However, this is only true if you⁠—along with a critical mass of others⁠—don't fall for the increasingly common trap of finding perfection.


Perfect partners and perfect jobs don't exist on day one; month one; or even year one. These things blossom over time. Expecting perfect from the outset will help ensure that you probably don't achieve anything close to it⁠—because you'll constantly be switching. Even if you internalize this shift⁠, others need to as well. You need dating partners who will stick with you once they realize you aren't perfect. You need colleagues who won't quit their jobs during the first experience of boredom or distress, since so much of what makes a job great over the long-haul is your colleagues.


It is true that in both relationships and work, settling sucks. But so does buying into the myth of immediate and eternal bliss⁠—and then getting stuck perpetually seeking it. Online tools for dating and job-searching can be helpful, no doubt. But only if you use them with a good dose of pragmatism. 


Perfect isn't a right-away or an always thing. Your partner won't be everything always. Your job won't be everything always. (This is why we desperately need to focus on building tight-knit communities—so we don't have what the sociologist Jessica Carbino called "absolutely unreasonable" expectations for romantic partners and jobs, which are but just two elements of our lives.) Until we fully internalize this, the sea of online-matching services⁠—be it for dating or for jobs⁠—will be filled with infinite fish all searching for something that doesn't exist. 






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