Has the pandemic killed ambition?

·9-min read
 (Joe McLaren)
(Joe McLaren)

September has long been a time for renewal; the start of ‘back to’ season, a month in which we shake off the torpor of August and redouble our ambitions on all fronts, vowing to work harder, get fitter and be better.

Not this year though. ‘My work ethic is dead,’ says one 35-year-old south London social media exec who is currently gearing up to quit her job. ‘I have no ambition any more, other than to earn just enough money to do the things that I love. Everything else feels pointless — it’s not just the past year, it’s the news about the climate disaster. It feels like we’re drinking champagne while the boat is sinking.’ She echoes the sentiments of most of the people whom I speak to for this story.

As with every other facet of our lives, the pandemic has had a profound effect on our attitudes to work. In June, a Microsoft survey of 30,000 workers globally found that 41 per cent were considering career changes, while UK-based HR company Personio warned employers that we are on the cusp of a ‘talent exodus’, as 38 per cent of the employees they surveyed were looking to change roles (or stop working altogether). Economists are calling it ‘the great resignation’ — a shift in attitudes towards work unlike any seen in living memory. The working world may well be reopening but it seems that 18 months of isolation, disruption and uncertainty has left many workers thinking, ‘Why bother?’

East Londoner Rachel is 39 and a consultant working at one of the ‘Big Four’ accountancy firms. ‘I was always excited about my career,’ she says. ‘I enjoyed the projects, I felt like I was constantly learning. And being in an office, surrounded by interesting people always fuelled my curiosity.’ Nine months of living alone and working remotely, though, took their toll. ‘Stripped of all the buzz and social interaction, I realised that the job itself made me feel like a drone. In February this year, I went for a medical assessment. It was the first time that someone asked me, face to face, “How are you?” — I just broke down. I was so hollowed-out and stressed.’

Rachel took three months of unpaid leave, during which time she found out that she was being put on the partner track at her firm. ‘I thought I’d be ecstatic; it was something I’d been striving for for years. But the whole thing filled me with dread. I cried that night. I’m the kind of person who, if I’ve committed to something, I’ll do my best. But the past year made me realise that these companies are huge machines that will take and take and take. I used to be so ambitious but now it feels like a waste of my life.’

Wendy Syfret began writing her most recent book, The Sunny Nihilist: How A Meaningless Life Can Make You Truly Happy, during the pandemic. ‘Work is the prism through which many of us now understand our lives,’ she says. ‘You’re told that if you work hard enough, achieve certain successes and hit certain milestones, then you’ll be saved from something, you’ll feel complete. The pandemic held up a mirror to those beliefs; many people realised their jobs weren’t saving them from anything. They weren’t offering them any real protection, security or satisfaction. In fact in many cases jobs had caused them to de-prioritise the things they really did need — a hug from a loved one or a day in nature.’ Rachel says that the stripping away of social interactions — ‘of all the small, incidental perks of office life’ — drove home a reality to which it may have otherwise taken her much longer to face up: ‘That I was ploughing all of my energies into something which ultimately left me unfulfilled.’ She’s still on unpaid leave and currently looking for a new job at a smaller company which, she hopes, will offer a better work-life balance.

Have you left your ambition in pre-Covid times? (Joe McLaren)
Have you left your ambition in pre-Covid times? (Joe McLaren)

‘It goes beyond “burnout”,’ says Dr Jamie Woodcock, a senior lecturer in management and author of The Fight Against Platform Capitalism. ‘It’s an existential shift in the way many of us view work — and it’s been happening for some time.’ Work ethic is defined as ‘the principle that hard work is intrinsically virtuous or worthy of reward’. In Having And Being Had, American essayist Eula Biss examines this definition, tracing it back to the 17th century and early Protestant ideology. As she points out, ‘Early Protestants believed they must work to accumulate wealth as proof that they were in God’s favour.’ This proved to be a necessary catalyst: ‘Capitalism couldn’t really take hold… until people became convinced, one way or another, to make more money than they needed.’

The idea that one should work more so as to accumulate a surfeit of wealth remained a driving force behind capitalism for centuries. ‘What we’re seeing now is a veil being well and truly lifted,’ says Woodcock. ‘The world is full of people who work incredibly hard and get very little in return. And particularly young people today — many of whom won’t have access to the rewards that older generations expected in exchange for their labour, like a home of their own, a respectful work-life balance or a pension which will leave them comfortable in later life — realise that working hard is rarely enough. Economically, the Protestant work ethic no longer bears out and given a chance to pause and take stock, more people than ever are questioning what they’ve been working so hard for.’

These include people like 37-year-old publican Toby from Brixton, whose pub closed down during the pandemic. ‘I haven’t even started looking for another job, even though I know that the hospitality industry is desperate for workers. I just have no motivation for it — everywhere is so short staffed that it’ll be brutal.’ Having had a break — some of which was funded by furlough, the rest with savings — he now says he’s dreading returning to ‘all those filthy people treating me like a servant. You start to wonder, is this all there is to life? I was pretty much at the top of my career, so starting over in a different industry doesn’t feel like an option. For the moment, while I can, I’m just going to continue not working.’

Anna Codrea-Rado is the author of You’re The Business: How To Build A Successful Career When You Strike Out Alone and co-host of Is This Working, a podcast which explores work and finances. She argues that workers have been questioning the ‘always-on’ mentality for some time. The side hustle, she says, was already becoming a ‘slightly unfashionable concept’, even before the pandemic — a symbol of a broken system in which people were forced to ‘work constantly just to achieve a basic level of comfort and fulfilment’.

‘I’ve personally really slowed down,’ Codrea-Rado continues. ‘It’s not that I can’t be more productive, it’s that I don’t want to be. I used to set goals based on my earnings, like “How can I earn 10 per cent more this year than last?” Now my goals are like, “How can I reduce my working hours without losing out on too much pay?” Being forced to confront our own mortality on a daily basis has impacted our ambition — but it was going that way anyway.’ She argues that many of us are moving towards a ‘just enough’ future, ‘where your identity isn’t pinned on your job and you want to do “just enough” to sustain yourself.’

Of course, for many a return to the office is imminent and not a matter of choice. ‘I actually think hybrid working will lead to people working more,’ says Rachel, ‘because it keeps the boundaries between home and work blurred.’ Lee*, 34, has just returned full time to the office at an investment bank in the City. His wife gave birth to their daughter in May 2020. ‘Getting to be at home and see my daughter grow up has been such a gift,’ he says. ‘So having to go back is hard.’ He leaves home in Wimbledon at 5.45am each day and hybrid working was never offered to him. ‘I was dreading it,’ he says. ‘Just the thought of my alarm going off. When I’m physically in the office, I don’t mind. But getting up and leaving is a struggle.’ According to a study by Rada Business, 45 per cent of UK workers would be interested in a permanent move to homeworking — citing greater flexibility and more time as the main perks. Far from an easier life, though, Lee says that being at home fuelled his ambition: ‘It has given me the time and freedom to speak to head hunters and other companies. I almost changed jobs and ultimately demanded a pay rise.’ He says that most workers he knows feel ‘discontented with the status quo’ but that the ways they’re expressing this discontent differ vastly. ‘I was really unhappy in my job but getting a pay rise helped,’ he says. ‘And that’s good enough for now.’

Woodcock says that ‘opting out’, slowing down or demanding more belies a level of privilege that not everyone has. ‘People enmeshed within the gig economy — Uber drivers working 60 hours a week to make ends meet — probably aren’t having these kinds of conversations,’ he says. Despite that, he thinks that they are important conversations to have. ‘A lot of people have come out of the pandemic saying, “Something’s wrong with my work, what can I do about it?” That’s a powerful shift.’ He argues that the biggest gains can be made through a renewal of trade unionism. ‘It’s been so long since we’ve seen working people coming together and demanding more equitable practices that we’ve kind of forgotten it’s possible, but I have a huge faith that ordinary people can change things. And coming out of the pandemic, there is a real opportunity for us to reassess.’ And if ever there was a month in which to do it…

*Some names have been changed

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