"I just don’t feel like I’m contributing anything," a friend said to me recently in despair. "I want to do more. It’s not just about earning money but also I need to feel secure and keep paying rent."
This friend is in her early 30s. She does not come from a wealthy background but she has 'hustled hard' in a creative job (in which she regularly pulls 18-hour days) since her mid 20s. During the pandemic she, like so many people, has had a reckoning. She says she wants to "make a contribution" and "do something meaningful". As things stand, it looks like she might retrain as a midwife.
What is the purpose of work? If that sounds like a big question, that’s because it is. The answer is at once practical, historical, ethical and philosophical. But as young women emerge, rubbing their tired eyes red-raw after years of staring at screens in the name of side hustles and girlbossery, it’s one worth asking.
According to many influencers including the former Love Islander Molly-Mae Hague, the purpose of work is success. That’s why she faced backlash last year for espousing a 'Thatcherite' doctrine when it comes to her work ethic. "We all have the same 24 hours in the day," she told The Diary Of A CEO podcast. "If you want something enough you can achieve it," she went on, "it just depends on what lengths you want to go to get where you want to be in the future."
You can get it if you really want, Molly-Mae said. Sounding just like the Iron Lady herself (who, famously, only needed four hours' sleep a night) when she said: "What is success? I think it is a mixture of having a flair for the thing you are doing, knowing that it is not enough, that you have got to have hard work."
"Happiness," she said, "is not in doing nothing. Happiness is to be overloaded the whole day, become exhausted by the evening and realise you did something worthy." Someone, please, call HR. Thatcher took age-old ideas about self-help and hard graft and deliberately turned them into something that sounded modern and forward-looking in contrast to a society in which socialist ideas about state support through the NHS and social housing had been accepted.
Since her time as prime minister, younger generations in Britain have been told that if we follow the rules – work hard at school, university and in the workplace – anything is possible. You can transcend conventional and entrenched class boundaries, get your dream job (even though wages have largely been stagnant since the global financial crash), buy your dream home (even though they keep getting more expensive, with house prices rising exponentially faster than wages) and live the life you want. The children of low-income workers can become prime ministers, those who were once destitute can become millionaires, all they have to do is work hard enough. Or can they?
We now know that sleeping six hours or less a night leads to a greater risk of dementia in later life and that working all available hours won’t necessarily buy you a house (because, as the Women’s Budget Group notes, housing is now less affordable than ever for young women). As the reaction to Molly-Mae's comments demonstrates, there is a growing awareness that hard work is not necessarily enough to get you to where you want to be and, what's more, that success in and of itself is perhaps not the goal.
In the years after the pandemic, the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) has found that the coronavirus crisis has led to lower participation of young people in the labour market overall. And, crucially, data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) also shows that the rate of young people in insecure work, including those on temporary and zero-hour contracts, is higher than before the pandemic.
Cristiana Orlando is a health foundation research fellow at the IES. She tells Refinery29: "This suggests that the trend in poor quality youth employment we were seeing before the crisis is continuing."
There is a gap between young people's aspirations for work and the reality of their working conditions.
Cristiana Orlando, Institute for Employment Studies
This insecurity is weighing heavily on young people, notes Cristiana. At the end of last year a report from the IES found that young people want to do more than earn lots of money.
The IES research found that 62% of 16 to 24-year-olds feel that the pandemic has made it harder to find "high-quality" work, which they define as secure work in a pleasant environment where there is a work-life balance. At the same time, sadly, working conditions have significantly worsened for under-25s during the pandemic.
"We asked over 1,000 young people from a range of backgrounds what ‘good’ work looks like to them and the majority told us they do want to be well paid but they also want security, stability and flexibility," Cristiana says. "But more than that, they want jobs that are ‘interesting’ and 'fulfilling’ which they said meant feeling ‘stimulated’ and ‘supported’ by their employer."
All around me (and perhaps around you), the women I know are saying similar things. "It’s not just about money anymore," Cristiana adds. "It’s about being able to fulfil your passion. A lot of people told us that the pandemic – being able to take a break from the frantic daily life we had before – had made them reconsider what it is that they want and need from work. They want to look after their health, they don’t want to be burned out. They want to feel valued, they want to contribute and they want to feel supported."
The problem is that if my friend does make this pivot to midwife – a job that is undeniably making one of the most valuable contributions possible – she will encounter some of the lowest pay and worst working conditions in Britain. A recent survey by the Royal College of Midwives found that eight in 10 midwives felt that the service they worked for did not have enough staff to run safely; last year the Care Quality Commission ruled that two fifths of NHS maternity units needed to improve their safety.
Millennial women are coming to the same conclusions as Generation Z (a little bit later in life) and they’re coming up against similar obstacles. In a society where zero-hour contracts have become increasingly commonplace, young people are telling researchers that they want more from their jobs but are struggling to find the safe, secure, reasonably paid work with decent conditions that can provide it.
"There is," says Cristiana, "a gap between young people’s aspirations for work and the reality of their working conditions."
The girlboss – with her bullet journals, bottomless ambition and fresh acrylics laid over nails bitten down to the quick in anxiety – was loosening her grip before the pandemic. But now, young women are questioning the purpose of work itself and finding the jobs available to them wanting. That could be a bleak thing to acknowledge but, perhaps, it is an opportunity. We (particularly those, like my friend, who are considering career switches later in life) can ask for more, we can write to MPs and call for an end to zero-hour contracts and we can demand that vital work – whether that’s midwifery or working in hospitality – is secure and fairly paid.
If the question is how do we make good quality and meaningful work more easily accessible, the answer is not yet more self-interested hustling. It's looking outside of ourselves at how we can improve working conditions for others as well as ourselves. As Amelia Horgan notes in her book Lost In Work, it needs to come from collective power (joining unions), demanding an end to zero-hour work and, finally, refusing to accept the spread of paid work into leisure time via the monetisation of our hobbies as hustles. It won’t happen overnight but work that actually sparks joy and gives you time to lead a rich and fulfilling life beyond it may yet be possible.