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Let’s stop pretending we love our jobs Even before Covid-19 struck, 'lifestyle' work was losing its lustre. Now it's dead and buried

An 'energy pod' at the company Thrive Global, in New York (Photo: HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)

An 'energy pod' at the company Thrive Global, in New York (Photo: HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)


May 13, 2020   7 mins

When the British government imposed a three-day working week during the oil crisis in 1973, many economists expected a productivity drop of at least 40%. It did not happen. People adjusted, worked harder and became more efficient. In the end, even though people were in work less, they were working more.

Fast-forward fifty years and the situation today has triggered an equally huge adjustment in our work patterns. All workers have had specific challenges, whether it’s the key worker whose status has risen and whose workload has increased (but whose pay and conditions have not) or the managerial class now working from home, tag-teaming childcare commitments with partners, and struggling with the virtual office.

One obvious characteristic of this pandemic experience is that we have a renewed sense of what is valuable work in society: saluting farmers, supermarket workers, bin men and delivery drivers. Health and care workers have been elevated beyond a workforce to the status of a sacrificial army for their undeniable duty and bravery. We do not wear poppies to show our respect but clap in the street to show our thanks. There is a new appreciation for schools, too, not just for their role in educating kids but as wrap-around childcare enabling parents to work. And how many other informal paid workers from cleaners to childminders do we now realise are fundamental to making our households — and our economy — tick?

This is an important corrective to the past two decades which was characterized with a steady decline in respect, status and stability for jobs categorised as “low-skilled”.  Associated with debates around immigration, education and inequality, the issue has dogged politics in most countries for years and has been both ignition and accelerant to the populist flame.

But as well as reminding us of these under appreciated but vital roles, the pandemic has also made us think about the purpose of work at the other end of the social scale. Before Corona, a Gallup poll found that 87% of workers in the UK felt disengaged in their job, and it is doubtful whether this figure would improve today just because so many of us are working from home.

How many workers are discovering how little they actually do in the office (and that it can be done at home in half the time)? Or perhaps workers are finding the exact opposite; things that could take 10 minutes in the office now take an hour over Zoom. Kids are exposed to what mummy and daddy call ‘work’ — lots of time looking at a screen, something we berate them for doing too much of and an activity that is hardly inspiring for them to see. How many workers are waking up to the fact that the rhythms and responsibilities that defined them aren’t as necessary or as important as they thought?

Given the economic slump that will follow this pandemic, it is unlikely that we will see a mass of dissatisfied workers walk out of their jobs; most will seek stability rather than change. But, even if this lockdown experience is not leading us to question our career, it is undoubtedly making us question our record on work/life balance.

There are three reasons to work: financial survival, professional and financial status, and personal meaning and identity. Since the 1990s, especially among the graduate class, it was the latter that was encouraged. A career was increasingly where individuals found their purpose. Finding the ‘right’ fit became a full time pursuit, consuming all spare hours, weekends and most of our twenties. If we took a wrong turn, we labelled it a quarter-life crisis and simply trained for something else.

Nowhere was this more encouraged than in the millennial generation, whose educational and parenting culture was entirely CV-driven. And for the first time in history, it was a gender-neutral pursuit, with millennial women being instructed that finding the right career was far more important than finding the right partner. The ultimate status update for millennials was not to be in love but to be in love with your job.

By the mid-noughties, just as manual labour declined and found itself increasingly dismissed by an educational establishment, we began to romanticise self-actualisation through work. Out went the slacker trends of the 1990s: the dead-end jobs, artistic fantasies, faint-hearted careers, twenty-somethings slumped on the sofa like Friends. Rents became too high, tuition fees had to be paid back and a global recession was looming. Work became the ultimate realising of the self. It was not the music we liked or the hobbies we pursued but our career that gave us our uniform, self-meaning and network.

Tech idealists were the chief evangelists of this rewriting of the protestant work ethic, with Steve Jobs the guiding prophet, immortalised by an unwillingness to compromise, global success and premature death: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life
 have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

Where we worked and where we wanted to work began to reflect this new culture. Again, the pioneers were the dot.coms of the early noughties and their influence signified what may be called the “Californication of the office”; evident today in even the dullest of corporate places. It became a space designed not for monotonous uninspiring work but for constant play with break-out zones, super-slides, free-breakfast bars, gyms and sleep pods. Like a casino is designed to keep out daylight, these offices are engineered to make you feel like you were not at work at all (and to keep you there for as long as possible).

Work benefits began to reflect these new priorities. Out went gold-plated pensions (a route map to eventual departure) and in came very different perks from pet insurance to unpaid sabbaticals, even an egg-freezing service and a breast milk courier system.

WeWork was the apotheosis of this trend. In the words of its poster-boy founder, Adam Neumann, WeWork was where people “made a life not just a living” and whose spaces were based “on mission and fulfilment — not only salary”. WeWork’s mission was always more impressive than its finances. Co-working spaces reflected the lionising of the lone, disruptive entrepreneur — even though the majority of WeWork’s clients were large corporations seeking to tap into the zeitgeist. The original concept of WeWork as a commune was always fantastical: there was no ‘we’ in WeWork; it reflected the decades-long breakdown of the employer-employee relationship.

It was not surprising that in this exhaustive search for meaning and purpose, we were becoming exhausted. Work seeped into our weekends, our social events and ultimately into our home — especially as the global recession hit and wages fell. We monetised our hobbies through side-hustles and further allowed the intrusion of work into our leisure time. The millennial generation in particular, far from their lazy, entitled stereotype, were becoming ‘work martyrs’, more likely than any generation to answer emails at the weekends.

But then came the Great Pause: Covid-19. No company, individual or government could have engineered this experiment if they tried. It is a real test of an employer’s obligations to their workforce. It is a real test of how accommodating employers are to workers’ work/life balance and familial responsibilities. It is a real test for workers as to whether they actually enjoy their job and how fulfilling they find it. I am currently doing a series of lockdown interviews with different professions, from CEOs to yoga teachers, and it is striking how little people are talking about work and how much they are talking about renewed fulfilment in the family, hobbies and home. Is this the time when we stop pretending we love our jobs?

They say it takes 66 days to build a new habit, and given some of the predictions of how long it will take to get back to normality, some are starting to think that it will never happen — certainly in the workplace. A recent Ipsos MORI poll found that 75% of Britons expect their work-life to change because of Covid-19. The question is how? Certainly, those workers — mostly parents — who have had to fight with their companies for flexible working will never have to make the case again. Even two-week paternity leave now seems woefully inadequate.

Even after social distancing ends, companies may find that they will have to justify why workers need to be in the office at all. With more remote working and staggered shifts, loyalty and camaraderie among workers will become a problem especially for new entrants. Some are already experimenting with all sorts of virtual bonding from cocktail lessons to quiz nights — but is this really comparable to a quick drink before the commuter train?

Even when lockdown is lifted and with social distancing measures still in operation, the office will be a very different place. Out go sleep pods (unhygienic) and break out zones (too social); maybe cubicles will once again become the norm?

More pointedly, many companies and organisations, especially in a recession, will use this as an excuse to “shave off some of the fat” with many roles, departments and people now considered surplus to requirements. Businesses are already sniffing out the huge savings to be made on reducing leased office space. It may be that office HQ becomes like a church: a place for regular worship, a sermon, communion and the odd study class, but with staggered service times and empty most of the time: the expectation will be that the majority of individuals’ work is performed outside the building.

But if true, consider the ramifications for those dependent on a thriving office community in our cities: from sandwich shops to cleaners to transport infrastructure. Business districts on a Sunday are ghost towns — do we really want that to become the norm? And what of the ramifications for company culture? Will the diversity deficit, mansplaining, even sexual harassment no longer be a feature of work-life or will these problems only intensify or be ignored in a working world dominated by Zoom? The suggested model published by the Adam Smith Institute last week of four days in work, ten days at home model may, depending on how long it lasts, totally destroy the concept of a ‘weekend’ and put us all on a rota rhythm that may feel more disruptive than lockdown itself.

All these changes will all be for the corporate class, of course, or at least the office class. And big business will adapt much slower to nimbler smaller outfits. The self-employed already have much of this flexibility built-in, but they may find that with fewer people in the office, their services are needed less and are the easiest to discard. There is already a divide between workers; those that can work from home and those that can’t — and that divide will only intensify post-Covid.

During this pandemic, all those things which are not usually recognised in the economy, such as care and cleaning (typically female jobs) are now what the economy hinges upon. The professional classes currently leaning out of their windows to clap on a Thursday night will soon find themselves confronted by a new world of work, but will this lead to a new era of work/life balance? Probably not. All the research suggests that a clear divide between personal and professional boundaries in life results in greater happiness.

So before we all rip off our lanyards in liberation, it is important to consider how the blurring of boundaries that comes with more remote flexible working may backfire; meaning in fact that we are all working harder, longer and more often. So it is surely time to stop pretending that it is the key thing that defines us.

 


Eliza Filby is a speaker, writer & consultant specialising in the history of generations and the evolution of contemporary values.

@ElizaFilby

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Wulvis Perveravsson
Wulvis Perveravsson
4 years ago

Since I have been furloughed, I’ve come to thinking more and more that workwise, I’ve made horrendous errors of judgement for the majority of my life. I perhaps should’ve realised this at uni, where I spent more of my time working as a chef than attending lectures and doing my coursework. I guess some people are cut out for practical work with a tangible end result, however brainy they may be. Unfortunately, being told you have academic talent is tantamount to being told you’d be wasting your life doing a manual job, and doing society a disservice by not reaching your ‘full potential’. Those who buck the trend and do what exactly what they are suited to rather than what others think they should do have my utmost respect.

andrewdevinerattigan
andrewdevinerattigan
4 years ago

Most of my peers who skipped University and obtained a trade are far better off than myself and several other of my friends educated to Master’s level in subjects with limited opportunities that are in much demand.

Wulvis Perveravsson
Wulvis Perveravsson
4 years ago

Yes. I have an MA which I enjoyed and did my own thing on, but don’t want an academic type job. My next move will be a distinctly practical, mechanical one. I find such great satisfaction in mending and improving things, and the lockdown has given me the chance to immerse myself in such tasks!

quodabiit
quodabiit
4 years ago

Hmm. You paint a world of work I simply don’t recognise. But then, I’m neither middle or professional class. I would remind you that productivity in the industrial sector was largely kept up during the three-day week period by having the country divided into those who worked Monday, Tues, Wednesday and those who worked Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Since almost everybody went from eight to twelve hour shifts, this meant that most people were working only four hours fewer than during a regular five day, eight hour shift week. What’s more, most people received dole for the days they didn’t work – so we were on Thurs, Fri and Saturday working and were paid dole for Mon, Tues, Wed. I was quids in. Didn’t want it to end.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

The extent to which this article is beamed from a galaxy far, far away is such that one could mock or knock almost every line. Just a couple:

‘Out went gold plated pensions’. As if that was a choice. This arose from a combination of Gordon Brown’s hatred of the private sector, various other legislation, and a globalism that most people now understand to have been a disaster on most levels.

Then there’s stuff about sleep pods and break-out zones. Now, I have spent my life in and around all the nonsense of ad agencies etc, but even I have not experienced these things.

Anyway, work is not supposed to be fun, even if we present that to be the case. If work was intended to be fun it would be called ‘Play’. Or even ‘Fun’. Most work consists of doing something unpleasant so that somebody else doesn’t have to do it. Directly or indirectly they pay you for taking that burden off their hands. You can then have ‘fun’ with the money they pay you, outside of your work hours.

Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

You make it all sound rather bleak!

Yes, I agree, work may not be ‘supposed to be fun’ or ‘play’, but that does not mean it cannot be also enjoyable, playful, or satisfying. I don’t think work need necessarily be unpleasant – though it contains effort, which is often arduous, laborious etc… but it also ought to contain purpose, contribution to society, and individual satisfaction.

It also isn’t the case that in work one is mostly “doing something unpleasant so that somebody else doesn’t have to do it”. People in the work force usually have particular skills to offer that others cannot do -carpenters, surgeons, signwriters, bike mechanics, accountants, dentists etc…

I think there is a disingenuous type of modern employer who tries to make it all look like cool fun and play (usually in the interest of extracting more of your time and effort). I feel this is the counterpart though to the more Dickensian sort of employer who made work an unending thankless drudge. Both are cliches, but with some basis in reality. Both these scenarios are about employers though and I think there is a distinction to be made between ‘work’ proper and employment.

I think in work (proper work) one is entitled to find something which delivers a sense of Self satisfaction. Work is also a contribution to our humanness, and so the elements of our work ought really to contain some expression of that humanness.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

Yes, I agree with that and I concede that I was being somewhat hyperbolic. My main target was indeed the type of modern employer who tries to convince people that working in some or other office of digital enterprise can be ‘fun’.

Wulvis Perveravsson
Wulvis Perveravsson
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

There a few places worse than a modern office.

Gerry Fruin
Gerry Fruin
4 years ago

Strange I’ve been a labourer, HGV driver, Outward Bound Instructor, Social worker, businessman, company director, in decades of work around the world, but I do not recognise the people the author fixates on. Perhaps it’s a sector of the Westminster civil service? I hope someone can educate me.

vince porter
vince porter
4 years ago

For those who write about it, “work” has become the office. Those outside the office, still a vast and heterogeneous diaspora, have not only scattered, they have seemingly disappeared. Forgotten are the assembly lines that still assemble, fishers who still fish, farmers who farm, miners who dig lithium from the deeps, cleaners here, there, and, everywhere, and, truckers delivering all the tactile stuff while the world sleeps. None of them are coming in from cold anytime soon; changing diapers and hard rock mining is just not a “fit”. Unfortunately, they remain invisible except when crisis rears its ugly head, or, a scapegoat is needed for the carbon conscious class.

David Morley
David Morley
4 years ago
Reply to  vince porter

Good point – we’re far too ready to equate work with the middle class experience of it.

Road workers, construction workers and oil riggers too.

Adamsson
Adamsson
4 years ago

It is handy that we stop pretending we love our jobs because with 8 million unemployed and counting most won’t have jobs soon

Chris Upton
Chris Upton
4 years ago

I was working a in factory in 1973 and was involved in a time and motion study. We produced more in 3 days than the usual 5.
It was sort of Parkinson’s Law in reverse.

Alex S
Alex S
4 years ago

How can something you do for 8 hours per day not define you? Whether you love it or hate it, it will define you. Hell, even something you’d be doing for 6 hours would define you.

I am fresh from uni and have worked about 1Ă‚Âœ year before the virus hit. I even started working 37.5 hour weeks and just got a full 40 hours after about a year. I don’t have kids or a partner.

Now I’m having 4-days weeks but still getting almost full salary. Of course I love it. My brother and friends are hoping they will get it too. If it weren’t for housing costs, I’d be willing to take a pay cut and continue working 4 days per week after this is over.

David Morley
David Morley
4 years ago

I confess that I tend to think of work like an arranged marriage. Not perhaps what you would have chosen, but you may grow to love it and there’s no doubt you grow through the process. At the very least you may find ways to get on together, even if you’re not really compatible.

ralph bell
ralph bell
4 years ago

Really interesting article and frightening prospect ahead, I agree, since I work in a large office banking role. I am now working from home but always much prefer to interact in the office with colleagues and the city folks around.

Niko Lourotos
Niko Lourotos
4 years ago

Speak for yourself.
Some people “find” a job – which they may or may not enjoy.
A great many others “create” their own jobs (I am one of them) by turning their passions into businesses – and they, more often than not, love doing them.
We’re not all helpless witless drones.

David Morley
David Morley
4 years ago
Reply to  Niko Lourotos

All credit to you, but it’s not the case for everyone. At the very least, most people make some sort of compromise with the job market. And not all passions lend themselves to commercialisation.

Paul Goodman
Paul Goodman
4 years ago

Its all prostitution.

That is why they call it “Work.”

The only thing worse than an employer is a customer.

Keeps the wolf from the door though.

David Morley
David Morley
4 years ago

Rents became too high, tuition fees had to be paid back and a global recession was looming. Work became the ultimate realising of the self.

This para makes it sound rather that self realisation was some sort of rationalisation for what was in fact economic necessity. If you like, a fairy tale to keep the serfs at work.

I’ve always thought that the view of work as self-realisation grew up alongside feminism. If work is considered a duty, or obligation, an unpleasant necessity, then its rather hard to maintain the idea that it has been unreasonably hogged by men. As recently as the 70s, people were anticipating a post-work world – a leisure age – and that was seen as a positive thing, not starving people of meaning.

Scott Powell
Scott Powell
3 years ago

I’d characterise this more a commentary on ‘the office’, and I’m not surprised that various realities are being exposed because of all the Covid nonsense. Like, how I can do my ‘job’ in 1 to 2 hours per day, for example, but in the fiction-inducing office environment, it ‘becomes’ 8. ‘The office’ is, in my opinion, the least valuable environment conceived by man.