Why it's probably time to let go of #hustle.
The woman stares out at you from behind dead eyes. Dishevelled, with a listless expression, she is accompanied by the caption: ‘You eat a coffee for lunch. You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.’
Sound like a dystopian pastiche of life in the hustle economy? No, my friends – this is a real, honest to god ad from the gig economy app Fiverr, and a symptom of the attitude towards habitual overwork that is sweeping our generation.
Now, sleep deprivation is certainly not my drug of choice (I count enough young parents among my friends to know better), and I will be the first to admit that looking back at my employment history, I have seriously struggled to live up to millennial standards of #hustle described in a recent article in The New York Times titled ‘Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?’. At one job I worked after university, my contract stated that I may be required to work an undisclosed amount of extra time without pay if they needed me to support the company’s out of hours functions. I asked the boss whether I would be allowed to take that time back in lieu, but was informed that despite it being written into my contract, overtime was considered voluntary. I was told in reassuring tones not to worry - I could “take half an hour to go to the dentist” once every six months if I liked, so it all evened out.
Naturally, this particular job required my unpaid assistance for way more time than I could ever have spent at the dentist even if I had lived purely on Fanta and Pop Tarts (which I didn’t, Mum, don’t worry). They were just looking for someone who loved the work enough to spend their free time doing it, or someone who would at least have the decency to profess such a love before going home to cry and fall asleep in their work clothes.
A quick disclaimer: this article is not about those who are overworked due to financial necessity. This article is about the “just a few extra hours” (or an extra forty, if you’re Elon Musk) setup that seems to have become almost ubiquitous across other ‘nine-to-five’ workplaces in the UK, sustained by a pressure to excel in our careers. It’s about the apparent trend of millennials working significant amounts of overtime, and wearing that unpaid labour like a badge of honour. The comments sections of every other article on millennials’ work habits demonstrates a divide between those who are totally up for the grind, instagramming a story of their triple shot latte as they wedge themselves onto a crowded London tube, and those who take the opposite tack, commenting “lol nope - ima stick to Netflix.” There’s even a bit of low key animosity between the two camps, with the worker-bees implying that the self-confessed slackers are lazy and unsuccessful, whilst the slackers deem the #hustlers to be overworked and pathetic in their search for validation.
But of course, we millennials shouldn’t be fighting or blaming each other for the current situation. The worker bees are not the enemy, but rather the product of a society that has adopted an increasingly unstable and exploitative notion of work, while the regulation and oversight of corporations is failing to protect young people from that exploitation. What’s more, we came of age in the midst of a recession, enabling us to witness the cruelty and unpredictability of the working world first hand, inciting our collective fear is that if we stand up to the system, our bosses will simply go out and find someone willing to work the overtime required to get the job done. And so, because we can’t afford to squander our careers in the name of fairness and sense, many of us resort to the #hustle mentality to make the situation bearable and even instagrammable.
On the flip-side, there is obviously nothing wrong with loving your job and working hard at it. Indeed, anyone who manages to find a job that they actually like is super lucky and should be pleased to be in such a position. However, that isn’t to say that you are therefore obligated to do that job for half the pay as a result of working twice the hours. “But I don’t feel obligated!” I hear you cry, “I just seriously love my job!” And that’s fine too - I fuel my PhD almost entirely on my love of the thing. But even time spent on a productive activity has to have parameters, if only to spend some time on a different productive activity. Dedicating every waking hour of your life to a single thing, whilst seemingly romantic, actually just means that you end up missing out on all the other wonderful things that the world has to offer and, taken to its extreme, that you inevitably end up neglecting your wellbeing. Sure, people who nurture their obsessions in this way very occasionally end up being famous billionaires or CEO’s with Wikipedia pages as long as my arm, but there is no evidence to suggest that they are any happier for it.
Perhaps instead of measuring our success by our career status (or how hard we can hustle at it), we should shift our definition of success to how well we are able to look after ourselves, or how kind we are to those around us. I know, I know, so hokey - but there is evidence to suggest that practising kindness to yourself and others is a key factor in increasing not only individual, but also societal wellbeing. What if instead of working until 9pm, you went home and took a hot bubble bath, or read your favourite book in your pyjamas? What if instead of getting in a couple of extra hours at the office on a Saturday morning, you spent some time engaging with your local community or even just hanging out with your family and friends? What kind of life could you live if you only worked the hours that you were contractually paid for?
Living in this way shouldn’t mean that you have to give up being a great employee and succeeding in your career. The eight hours per day that you’re at your job should be spent getting stuff done; that’s what you’re paid to do. With that said, if you’re consistently given too much work to get done in the time contractually agreed upon, and can demonstrate that you have done everything in your power to manage the tasks in as efficient a way as possible, then it becomes your employer’s job to find a solution.
Ultimately, long-hours culture isn’t even benefitting your employer all that much. Several studies have indicated that longer work hours don’t actually result in increased productivity (Adam Ruins Everything did a great little video on this, if you’re interested). In the UK, we’re working longer hours than ever before, and yet our productivity is amongst the worst in the G7 countries.
It may take employers time to cotton on to the fact that work-life balance benefits companies as well as individuals (though some are beginning to see the light). But I hope that as our generation grows older and more of us move up into managerial positions (or higher - some of you are already running your own businesses!) we’ll have the integrity to value people’s skills and experience, rather than measuring success by the number of extra hours worked.
Eventually, we will come to admire those who don’t make work their whole life, but who instead respect themselves and their time enough to maintain a well-rounded existence. To me, that’s the very least we should be aiming for. It’s true, living in a more measured way might affect the likelihood of you getting your own Wikipedia page, but there’s more to life than that. And if the only thing that will make you happy is a Wikipedia page about yourself, drop me a line and I’ll make one for you. After 6pm, my evening is wide open.