When I came back from New York last year, where I had been reporting on the presidential election for a national newspaper, I had a work-related dream. I was going to go part-time, build up my portfolio and write my first novel. I imagined meditating in the mornings, baking banana bread and spending caffeine-fuelled, productive afternoons in cafés, surrounded by like-minded young people on silver MacBooks.
Turned out my employer wasn’t on board with that vision. So I decided to go freelance and continue doing casual shifts at my old company to ensure a stable income.
According to a recent survey from Timewise, 88% of Generation X and 92% of millennials want to do some kind of flexible work, yet only 11.1% of roles in the UK paying more than £20,000 pro rata offer it.
Gen Y-er Jas, 22, works one full time job as an apprentice at a national newspaper and edits two feminist publications in the mornings, evenings and weekends.
“I like having two jobs because I have an incredibly short attention span. I don’t know if this is just me, or symptomatic of being part of a generation that is so used to moving quickly from one focus to the next, due to the internet, but I like being able to give my time to more than one project or cause,” Jas said. “It would be great if those jobs could provide a good work/life balance. Ideally, in the future, I would like to work two days a week in two jobs, but at the moment that just isn’t feasible – and I don’t know if it ever will be with the cost of living.”
So why don’t more employers offer flexible work which pays the rent?
"Employers assume flexible working is just for part-time mums, but we need to change that perception," said Angharad Salazar Llewellyn, a freelance social media consultant, brand editor and journalist who writes a newsletter called The Flexwork Network. "I’m a mother of two kids, but my newsletter is not just for parents – it’s also for people who care for their own parents or even those who just want to walk their dog on a Wednesday."
Charlotte Sweeney OBE, founder of diversity and inclusion consultancy firm Charlotte Sweeney Associates, added that our current workplace culture doesn’t look favourably on shorter hours.
"My personal view is that many companies continue to see long hours as a badge of honour, as a physical representation of your commitment to your work and your company," she said.
But staring at our computer screens from 8am to 6.30pm doesn’t mean we are being productive – we could just be messaging mates on Facebook or shopping on ASOS. Longer work days don’t appear to help our economy, either. The UK has lower productivity than other European countries – something we keep hearing about because of Brexit – yet in France it is illegal to badger your employees outside of working hours, as is policy at big German companies like Volkswagen and Deutsche Telekom.
"A focus on productivity and output rather than hours spent at work should be a cultural shift for employers rather than seen as a 'benefit or favour' for some," Sweeney said.
Working long hours isn’t good for our health, and younger generations know it. Hayley Smith, 30, decided to take voluntary redundancy after her employer refused to let her work from home, even though she had been off sick with stress. She then founded her own PR firm after a few months’ time out.
"If you end up burning out and suffering mental health conditions as I did, in my view, it means you’re not good for anyone, especially yourself, and then it’s even harder to find another job," she said.
Not all men want to do the nine-to-five, either. Tom Ali, 33, recently quit his full-time corporate role because he wanted to spend more time with his young son.
"I asked about flexible working and they agreed to let me off half an hour early – enough to miss some of the traffic on the way home. I was coming in half an hour early anyway," he said. "They were like, 'This is how things are done'. They weren’t thinking about staff as individuals."
Ali found a job share in Nottingham which, he said, provided some structure to his working week as well as pension contributions. It also allowed him time to set up his blended spice recipe business, Freshly Spiced, on the side.
Ali’s story is not unusual. Yet in journalism at least, it is clear that most of the people who go freelance, or who are seen to be dropping out of the full-time workforce, are women. And this appears to be the case more widely. Professor Tom Schuller, author of The Paula Principle: How and Why Women Work Below Their Level of Competence, explained that far fewer men do part-time work, and the ones who do are "generally poorly qualified".
"This is why part-time men earn less than women, resulting in a negative gender pay gap," he said. "It's because, for men, and therefore for us generally, working part-time is still seen as a sign of low commitment. Shifting this mindset is the key challenge."
The UK’s national median pay gap is 18.4%, in men’s favour. Schuller said one of the five factors he identified that create this gap is that women are more likely to prioritise a work/life balance and may simply not aspire to the top jobs. In fact, all the factors he spoke about – discrimination at work, caring responsibilities, having children, lack of role models and vertical networks of women – not only create the gender pay gap but also contribute to pushing women out the door.
On the flipside, there are many business leaders and even feminist thinkers who advocate that it is the women who need to match men’s commitment to full-time roles, rather than men dialling down their hours. In 2006, Linda Hirshman wrote Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, arguing that a woman’s "choice" to quit a full-time job is hardly a free one in a system that is stacked against us, and in doing so we are simply reducing our human capital and our contribution to society. We should instead make sure our partners are putting in equal effort at home with childrearing and picking up socks.
Her argument keeps coming back, from different people and in different words. Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg wrote in her international bestseller Lean In that women should endure years of work that we may not enjoy in order to reap rewards later on – like more seniority, more pay, and being able to change the male-dominated system from the inside.
It is questionable whether these theories telling women to work harder have improved women’s lives, or companies’ fortunes. The same year Lean In was published, Yahoo's then-CEO Marissa Mayer banned employees from working from home. Yahoo plummeted in value, until it was sold in 2017.
Plus, many of the above arguments are aimed at married women in the corporate environment – they don’t cut it for single millennials.
Take fundraising consultant, Ella, who went freelance two years ago when she was 26. Ella told me she was "bored" at her major charity employer, and whenever she asked for a new opportunity, the answer was simply "no".
"Now I never work more than four days a week, I pick my bosses and I have loads of time for hobbies and interests outside of work," she said.
The downside? "I have no sick pay or pension, and I certainly have no maternity leave whatsoever, so I will have to go back into full-time work once I want to have children."
Our economy is increasingly reliant on people working part-time and freelancing (we’re cheaper). Of course it’s good that most of us are employed, but as one economic theory shows, when wages are cheap, more people get work. Many a company’s business model may rely on the hordes of young freelancers or flexible workers who are just grateful for the work and don’t get the perks and benefits of full-time staff. This works like a dream – but only in the short term.
And while Ella, Tom and Hayley all enthused about the benefits of their current work arrangements, they all have another thing in common – they asked for a change at their full-time employer and were turned down. Like me.
We need to find a balance where we can work remotely and still contribute to our pension pot, where we can go part-time but still get sick leave, and where we can freelance and still be taken seriously. Employers should note that we are the new productive, tech-savvy and determined workforce, but we also have lives outside of the office. It’s time to listen to the millennials for once.