Life, Jobs & Money In Your 20s: What Movies & TV Get Wrong (& Right!)

As much as Hollywood loves stories about the horrible exploits of rich people, they also love to pump out stories about struggling 20-something-year-olds trying to make it in the big city. Shows like Broad City and 2 Broke Girls gained lots of popularity for their depiction of young urban dwellers working odd jobs to afford living in the Big Apple. While both series tried to base their leading ladies’ financial troubles in realism by giving them shabby apartments or showing them shopping at Goodwill, they still have plenty of time for out-of-work shenanigans and quirky side quests. Even when they are shown at work, they’re doing a lot of chit-chatting and questionable activities that, in reality, would probably get them fired…

So let’s take a closer look at what Hollywood gets wrong (and right!) in its depictions of 20-somethings on screen, why we’re drawn to these characters, and the financial and emotional reality of trying to make it on your own after college.


Gen Z and Millennials, more than any other age group, are more likely to work at least two jobs to make ends meet or pursue a creative interest. Some people, notably those who work in finance, have tried to spin this change in the work landscape as a cultural trend in response to the pandemic, coining the term “polywork,” which feels akin to the corporate rebrand of rose-gold appliances. There is nothing hip or cool about having to work multiple jobs because your 9 to 5 doesn’t pay you a sustainable salary, the median rent continues to skyrocket, and your once affordable neighborhood is now being gentrified.

It makes sense why so many shows that depict financial hardship are packaged as comedies. The reality and costs of going to school to work in a specific field, only to face an extremely competitive job market, which will likely force you to work multiple jobs until you make enough to pursue what you’re actually passionate about, is soul-crushing

“It’s just, like, everybody can tell me what I can’t do. But nobody can tell me what I can do.” Search Party

Which is perhaps why film and TV about struggling friends working odd jobs and getting up to wild shenanigans are so appealing. Sitcoms that revolve around struggling 20-something-year-olds like Friends, How I Met Your Mother, and Seinfeld became such smash-hits because they speak to the cultural phenomenon of what it’s like to fumble through your 20s.

“Welcome to the real world! It sucks. You’re gonna love it.” Friends

Cities like New York, L.A., and London are popular settings for these shows because they’re filled with all kinds of characters struggling through relatable situations (like trying to find an apartment within your budget.)

Many of us dreamed of living in a big city because we watched these shows growing up, and wanted to find our own Central Perk to meet up with our attractive friend group and run into celebrities. Or dreamed of landing a job at a fancy corporation in Midtown where we impress the CEO with our young and innovative ideas.

When The Struggle Isn’t So Real

Another trend worth looking at in film and TV is the portrayal of “working-class” characters who actually come from generational wealth, which means their financial troubles are superficial at best. Sometimes, this portrayal is meant to be satirical. The writers are clearly in on the joke that this seemingly struggling 20-something-year-old can easily call up their parents if they’re short on rent.

“Till yesterday, I got all of my money from my parents. Does that make you feel sick? Make you not want to talk to me.” Girls

However, time and time again, Hollywood has proven its lack of awareness about financial insecurity – likely because, historically, those who succeed in the entertainment industry predominantly come from wealth and are detached from the reality that most of us have to contend with.

Rory and Lorelai from Gilmore Girls are a perfect example of this discrepancy in film and TV. Lorelai is introduced as a single parent who had Rory when she was a teenager, leaving her wasp-y upbringing and working as a hotel maid until she eventually worked her way up to hotel manager, managing to buy a home in Connecticut. Even in 1995, her salary as a hotel manager likely would not have been enough to purchase a home of that size – let alone afford to pay Connecticut property taxes and order takeout every night. Fans have theorized that Lorelai likely had a trust fund from her wealthy grandmother, which went into effect when she was 25. Much like Monica from Friends who was later revealed to have inherited her grandmother’s massive rent-controlled apartment in Greenwich Village. However, both Lorelai and Monica’s characters probably wouldn’t admit that their proximity to wealth (despite how independent they are) has given them and their loved ones a privileged life.

Lena Dunham’s show Girls rocked pop culture when it premiered in 2012 for its satirical, controversial, and often dead-on portrayal of four white millennial friends navigating their post-college 20s. Dunham plays the lead character, Hannah, who is introduced having a full-on quarter life crisis when her parents cut her off and her internship won’t pay her.

“But I have no job.” “No, you have an internship that you say is going to turn into a job.” “I don’t know when.” “You graduated from college two years ago.” Girls

In some ways, Hannah is the talented, “quirked up,” unglamorous younger sister of Carrie Bradshaw. Hannah’s struggles as a writer and millennial are relatable to pretty much anyone who graduated from a liberal arts college, but she and her friends are also emblematic of privileged 20-somethings who move into gentrified neighborhoods and always have a safety net to fall on.

“Marnie was just saying that she feels like I need to go and talk to my parents and ask them to support me until I get a job.” “Why don’t you just tell them that you’re an artist. You just need to tell them once and for all that you are an artist.” Girls

During its run, Girls garnered both resentment and praise for centering these kinds of narcissistic female characters while still exploring their complexities. As Dustin Rowles puts it, “The difference between a show like Girls and a show like Friends—which is also populated with wealthy privileged characters—is the sense of self-awareness…Dunham, whether she belongs to this class of people or not, understands that they are unlikeable. She doesn’t want to offer her characters salvation…she just wants us to know they exist, and for all their negative qualities, they are complicated people.”


The linear narrative that getting an education that will automatically land you your dream job has been peddled for generations. We are told that with hard work and dedication, we can achieve anything, inflation and student debt be damned! Pop culture is one of the great peddlers of this myth that obtaining a glamorous dream job is worth the years – or, on screen, often more like months of extraneous labor and poor wages.

“Dad, I swear, this is my break. This is my chance. This is my… boss. I’m sorry, Dad, I have to take this.” The Devil Wears Prada

As Scarlett Harris puts it, “A lovable job is also the poorly constructed myth that motivated millennials through childhood and college, sustaining aspirational media and publishing workers through devalued, no guarantees arts degrees in the hope that a measly entry-level salary or freelance writing career will allow an approximation of the lifestyles seen on film and television.”

These aspirational lifestyles extend beyond media and publishing. From Elle Woods defending a star client in court as only a first-year law student to Pretty Little Liars’ Spencer and Mona getting jobs on Capitol Hill straight out of college, film and TV often take creative leaps when depicting ambitious 20-something-year-olds taking their first steps out into the “adult world.”

And while it is pretty unrealistic that so many people would land their dream jobs right after graduation, there are young people in real life who get early career breaks after school, often in fields like tech or finance. However, they are a privileged minority compared to most millennials and older Gen Z-ers in the workforce. When you think about it, modern stories about young self-starters are products of the “American Dream,” which became our national ethos because there were people from all walks of life in the 20th century who were able to grow their small businesses into empires. Or, they were discovered by someone in a position of power, changing their life forever.

“All you gotta do is trust me. That’s all you gotta do.” A Star Is Born

Hollywood and pop culture cling to these stories because they are true, but they are also extremely rare. In a society that functions through mass production, it’s essential that young people have big dreams of entering the workforce – and to be effective, it has to look fun. Who didn’t want to become a Toy Tester after watching Big or solve small town crimes as a teenage private detective?


Popular media has come a long way since the golden years of 90s and early 2000s film and TV. Instead of instant-coffee escapism and feel-good sitcoms with characters having only superficial money problems, we’re seeing more stories that acknowledge the financial struggles people are facing across the board, especially young folks of various identities working and living in big cities. You have protagonists who may have landed their dream job at a high-powered company, but they still live with their parents because their entry-level salary isn’t substantial enough to let them rent an apartment. And when they do finally move out of their family home, the next best option is a six-story walkup with roommates who are always late on rent/

“I feel like all I do is work. I can barely pay my rent. Oh! Which is due tomorrow.” “Is Juice Moocher pitching in?” “Well, I’ve been dropping hints all week.” Ugly Betty

Then, you have characters having to work multiple jobs to pay the rent, like waitressing or driving for Lyft, and sometimes they have to resort to creative or downright illegal methods to find affordable housing or make some quick cash to avoid sleeping on the streets.

Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana are friends in their mid-20s trying to make it on their own in New York City. They sloppily balance various minimum wage jobs and throw 420 parties or sell stolen office supplies to make some extra bucks.

“So, correct me if I’m wrong. People are paying you to use the free public charging stations?” “So what? All the great male entrepreneurs do it, okay?” Broad City

While Ilana’s wackier schemes always seeming to work out in the end, no matter how dire her money troubles, can start to feel a little unrealistic at times – Abby’s story of having to work a miserable job in the hopes of maybe getting promoted to something that doesn’t totally suck and might pay you a livable wage (not to mention totally putting her real dream job on hold because she can’t even really afford to think about it) is something that so many of us can relate to. And their more out there plans to make ends meet help balance out the harsher realities with a bit of fun.

One show in particular that skillfully explores this kind of realism is the recent Netflix adaptation of One Day, which follows the love story between two college friends as they navigate the trials and tribulations of their 20s. While the story mainly takes place during the 90s, Emma and Dexter’s winding career paths and struggles as young adults still resonate with millennials and Gen Z-ers today. Emma, a straight A student and budding writer, is faced with realistic financial challenges almost immediately after graduation. Unlike posh-boy Dexter, Emma did not grow up with family wealth and ends up working a hellish service job in London.

“Welcome to the graveyard of ambition. Loco Caliente means “crazy hot.” “Hot” cause the air conditioning doesn’t work. “Crazy” cause that’s what you’d have to be to eat here.” One Day

Emma’s insufferable work life, like so many people’s jobs after college, nearly crushes her dreams of becoming a writer. Meanwhile, Dexter gets to gallivant around Europe before landing a job as a TV presenter, but life eventually catches up to him—as it does for all of us in varying degrees.


One Day has been praised for its authentic storytelling, and the way it navigates class, gender, and relationships represents a new cultural ethos. Showing characters struggling in their 20s without immediately landing their dream jobs can actually be very comforting for those of us experiencing a similar existential dread. Success is not always linear nor is it only determined by material gain. Success can look like making a difference in your community or finally coming to terms with who you are. And while there’s nothing wrong with being ambitious in your 20s, it’s important to remember that the economy and job market is not what it used to be, and plans can change.

Nothing is guaranteed, and sometimes, it may take years if not a decade to land your dream job – and who knows, by the time you finally get there, you might have a whole new dream. As we evolve as people, so can our desires. Many of us will have to slog through numerous jobs in our lives before we can truly settle down (if we’re lucky), and some of those jobs will outright suck, but there is always something to be learned—and that may be the true measure of success.