Culture   //   September 22, 2022  ■  4 min read

Career milestone FOMO and how to cope

It’s safe to say that we all experience FOMO — or the “fear of missing out” — at some point in our lives.

It once started with people getting FOMO when it came to social events, but has since expanded to include work. According to a 2021 study in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, social comparison can motivate us to work harder, but the question is whether that’s always a good thing. Introducing: career milestone FOMO.

“I’d equivalate it to making sure you want to get married and have kids at a certain time,” said Allison Capellini, a 23-year-old associate account manager for a New York-based healthcare corporation, who experiences career milestone FOMO. “When you graduate college, it’s like you have to have a job right away.”

For her, graduating during the pandemic made it even harder for her to land a job, but she still saw others posting about their new careers on social media.

“It was hard to see people getting a job before me or even getting their dream job when you’re just trying to find any kind of job to have some sort of money coming in,” said Capellini. 

Is social media the culprit?

Gen Z is the fastest-growing group on LinkedIn, a site that Capellini said was a source of her feeling career milestone FOMO where raises, promotions, and new opportunities are seemingly endlessly celebrated. Ultimately, she had to mute her LinkedIn notifications and limit her time on the app.

“It’s the overall pressure of having a job where you’re excelling and every day you’re striving to be better and working for that promotion,” said Capellini. “There already is that pressure, but seeing that through LinkedIn and social media aides to that.”

“I see someone else who’s in digital marketing and they have a better job than me, and I’m like ‘I went to high school with you,’ and I know I could have that job too,” she continued. 

On Instagram and TikTok, Capellini said she sees a “girl boss” persona, where Gen Z and millennials portray themselves as always on the grind and always working. 

“We’re now seeing this other side of their life, maybe it’s their house, their vacation, their car — whatever materialistic thing it may be, it makes us think they must be doing really well in their career,” said Shara Seigel, senior director of consumer media strategy at PR agency Mission North, who noted seeing these updates on Instagram. “Maybe they’re my age but a level above me. I see all of their accomplishments and wonder what their salary might be in terms of affording that as a lifestyle. It’s like ‘wish I made what you were making to be able to do that.’”

Social media makes it easy to compare lives — even if they’re somewhat exaggerated online.

“In our current social media-driven culture, it can be difficult to parse reality from carefully staged photos and moments,” Niki Yarnot, a career coach with New York-based career services firm Wanderlust Careers, told WorkLife. “The bar for achievement and success seems to move higher and higher all the time.”

Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, psychiatrist and chief medical officer at LifeStance Health, a provider of outpatient in-person and virtual healthcare, said she has noticed patients struggling with mental health challenges in ways that they wouldn’t have 10 years ago.

“In the pandemic here, people have a feeling that things have been halted and they’ve missed the stages of development in their career,” said Patel-Dunn. 

Patel-Dunn said those most vulnerable to this career milestone FOMO are people who just started a new career, are young in the job market, or even just started a new position. On top of social media adding to these feelings, people are mostly remote or hybrid and they no longer are getting those water cooler conversations where they might be validated by a coworker.

Those who are working through career milestone FOMO might feel anxious, overwhelmed, and worried, said Patel-Dunn. If it gets even worse, physical symptoms could appear like the tightness of chest, trouble sleeping and even panic attacks.

“We often see with some of this you can then have low self-esteem and turn it inward,” said Patel-Dunn.  

How to avoid career comparison traps

Patel-Dunn recommends putting everything in moderation. Limit time on social media and instead focus on things like exercising, getting good sleep, eating healthy, spending time outdoors and talking to loved ones. 

“Maybe you need to take a break and you’re only on LinkedIn when you’re on your computer versus on your smartphone device that goes everywhere with you,” said Patel-Dunn.

She also suggests reframing your thinking from life away from life happening to you to playing an active role in what happens. To help shift your perspective, it might be beneficial to focus on the positives of where you are now in your career path. 

Or, it could mean coming up with a solid plan on how to approach your supervisor on getting that raise or promotion if you feel like you’ve earned it. Patel-Dunn suggests asking peers or supervisors for feedback or expressing your concerns. 

“Part of working is getting feedback,” said Patel-Dunn. “It doesn’t have to be waiting for feedback. If you’re feeling anxious, vulnerable or insecure, reach out and grab a few minutes and ask them for that. It can be so helpful.”