When Molly*, 35, was growing up, she remembers the message of “work hard and you’ll get rewarded” being drilled into her by parents and schoolteachers. As a result, she spent her early career putting in the hours.
But when she had a child and sought a flexible work pattern at her professional services job, the company denied her request. “I was replaceable,” she says. “I was very much a cog in the machine.”
That prompted a realisation that the long hours she’d put in – arriving early, staying late, working outside her brief, going “above and beyond” – would not be rewarded.
Now Molly feels “work is a distraction from life”; something to pay the bills. She refuses to answer office emails or calls at weekends and prioritises family time with her two young children. “It can wait until Monday,” she thinks.
Molly is one of many in her generation readjusting their work-life balance to focus less on their job. Research published this month from King’s College London based on surveys from 24 countries found that just 14% of UK millennials (people born from the early 80s to mid 90s) believe work should always come first, compared with 41% in 2009.
Talking about her family life, Molly says: “We go walking in the woods and in nature quite a lot, we go cycling, we read books, we play board games, but then you have to stop doing nice things to do a bit of work – and then go back to these things”. She says this lower-stress attitude to work makes life “more peaceful”.
The King’s College survey also found just 73% of all Britons believe “work is very or rather important” in their lives. British people were the least likely of the 24 countries polled to agree with this statement, below the US (80% agree), Germany (84%), France (94%), Italy (96%) and the Philippines (99%).
James, a 31-year-old in Glasgow, had always worked hard, from striving for a first at university to working until 8pm or 9pm at the office in the civil service in the hopes of getting noticed.
But during lockdown in 2020, James had an epiphany about what he valued in life when reading the book Bullshit Jobs by the anthropologist David Graeber. “He talks a lot about how jobs that provide social utility are generally pay-poor while the inverse are paid more,” James says.
James felt he was working doggedly – but not necessarily either generating public good or building a stable financial life. “It felt futile … You can work really hard and you’re still not going to get ahead,” he says.
“Salaries and housing costs are so mismatched at this point that you would really need to jump ahead in your career to be able to buy in parts of the country. Not that [owning property] is the be-all and end-all, but it’s kind of a foundation to having financial stability.”
He now focuses on his life, putting his phone on aeroplane mode while doing activities such as hiking, reading and watching films. “I still value work, I’m very committed to my position. But I’ve just realised that this myth a lot of millennials were told – graft, graft, graft and you’ll always get what you want – isn’t necessarily true,” James says. “It’s a reprioritisation.”
Social mobility in the UK is at its worst in more than 50 years, a recent study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found, with children from poor households finding it harder than 40 years ago to move into higher income brackets. The IFS said gifts and inheritances from older generations were becoming more important to household incomes.
“I see my work as secondary, something that I use to provide for my personal life,” says Kate, 23, who works in the mental health sector in London. She puts spending time with family and friends and self-care activities such as reading, pottery and painting ahead of fixating on a career goal. “Those things energise me,” she says.
Kate used to work a stressful job and found it taking over: “It would seep into my personal life.” A focus on working too much, she says, can “lead to burnout and stress, time away from friends and family, and that will ultimately I believe lead to a downfall in someone’s mental health.”
Prioritising life over work is about being “compassionate to yourself”, Kate says, but she acknowledges the option to do so is a privilege in the current cost of living crisis and wants it to become something achievable for everyone.
Tim, 26, a business analyst in London, says he tries to focus on life over work but when there is “always something to do” he often slips into unhealthy patterns. “I’ll not get around to using my holiday or my time off or I won’t actually go away anywhere, I’ll end up just working and working and then suddenly I realise I’m exhausted,”
In a previous job, Tim worked so hard that he burned out, having to take a few months off to recuperate after feeling tired constantly and depressed. “There is the desire to keep working and try to move up, get promoted, get raises, and have a bit of security in that way,” he says.
But Tim also came to realise that grinding hard did not translate into the career gains he hoped for. He saw hardworking friends experience a “lack of opportunities” and find themselves working in bars or on zero-hours contracts after graduating, whereas people from wealthy backgrounds progressed. “The key to success is if you went to the right school – that’s how you get the million-pound job,” he says.
Now Tim tries to enforce boundaries on logging off by 6pm and not working overtime. He values other parts of life much more – like building meaningful relationships and taking time to travel the world. “Trying to be a bit kinder to yourself,” he says.
Alice, a 36-year-old in Leeds, used to work evenings and weekends and volunteer for extra projects in her digital marketing job. But in recent years, she has begun to feel the system is rigged against working people – that toiling in a job is like pushing a boulder up a hill and never reaching the summit.
Now she says: “I don’t really believe in that sort of ‘meritocracy’ of working hard and achieving, getting to the top of the ladder. My perception of the world, rightly or wrongly, is that there is a very small number of people that own everything, and the rest of us work for them.”
This shift in Alice’s thinking and the birth of her son led her to re-centre family – instead of work – as life’s core. The shift has brought feelings of fulfilment, she said, adding: “I’m grateful that I have dimensions to my life other than work which definitely wasn’t the case before.”
*All names have been changed