News alert: You don’t have to wake up at 5am to be successful. Jo Bentham explores why our generation have been shoe-horned into a work life that lacks balance and fetishises the ‘hustle’, and how we can claim back control of our free time.
You’ve probably seen them– articles written about business owners and self-confessed workaholics who advocate the (false) mentality that the only way you’ll ever make it in your chosen career is by waking up at 5am (at the latest), going for a run, and then working until you fall asleep the following night. Or, if you’re really dedicated, you might just have black coffee running through your veins and leave the sleep for when you’re, you know, dead.
As a young woman fresh out of university, I unconsciously started to follow their advice – admittedly sans exercise most days – because I felt like I had something to prove. If I wasn’t aggressively applying for jobs, updating my portfolio or streamlining my CV, I was scrolling through LinkedIn looking for advice, tips and tricks. It was non-stop.
When I eventually landed a role, my working day didn’t finish at 5pm as specified on my contract. The pressure to stay late, go above and beyond every day, was overwhelming. When I finally got home, I would be hit with the acute fear that if I wasn’t spending my nights learning something new or looking for an even better job, I would fall behind.
My work-life balance was sub-zero, and I didn’t really think much of it, because in a society where young people are more career driven than ever, it was the new norm to work, sleep (sometimes), eat and repeat.
It took falling out of love with a career I had been incredibly passionate about for me to realise that the lifestyle I’d been sold by the very people I looked up to was a bit of a shambles. As someone in the creative industry, you can probably imagine that creativity is, well, quite important. But all of the late nights and stress-fuelled breakdowns sucked it out of me. I wasn’t even one year into working life, and I felt completely burnt out. Looking back, I’m surprised I even made it that long.
Millennials, and Gen-Zers are often touted as a lazy generation – we’re told that we expect too much for too little and aren’t willing to put the work in. I’d beg to differ – our generation exists in a world where the line between work and social is increasingly blurred. When we aren’t in an office, we’re expected to be working on a side hustle.
And we aren’t just told to do it – we feel it.
We feel it viscerally, the need to overwork, when we wince at housing prices, watching the lives our parents led speed rapidly out of our grasp. We’re told we can’t have the same things the generation before us had, not because pricing houses have increased and wages have stagnated, but because we dare to enjoy brunch once a month.
So, we stop treating ourselves, work harder and end up crashing.
I blame LinkedIn for some of it, and I think it’s time we start to look at the professional networking platform in the same way we do mainstream social media sites like Instagram – as a tool of agonising comparison.
I know that’s not what it’s for, and yes, I’m probably using it wrong. But seeing all of my university friends landing the coolest jobs and being promoted within a month made me feel like I was a little bit stuck, and a little bit of a failure.
I decided it was time to take a step back, and I was lucky enough to be in a position where I could take some time off to re-establish my love of my field. The LinkedIn app also got deleted from my iPhone (for a solid two days.)
I think the real message in all of this though, is that we desperately need to slow down.
The truth is, we’re a society obsessed with being busy. However, there’s a big difference between being busy, and being productive. I’m not a morning person, and that means that some days you’re lucky if you see me dressed before 12pm. But once I’m fully rested and raring to go, I’m a hell of a lot more productive than I ever would have been if I was running on 4 hours of sleep and a litre of caffeine.
As young people who are shaping the future, we really shouldn’t be spending the whole of our first jobs post-university searching for something better, and we shouldn’t be giving in to pressures of working around the clock, burning ourselves out in the process. The evidence is there – countries with shorter working weeks have the same, if not higher, levels of productivity. Work your stipulated hours and work them well. Stay late when you absolutely need to. Set the example to change working culture.
Be driven. Be passionate. Push yourself. But, most importantly, make sure you’re always taking time to appreciate the journey.
Words: Jo Bentham