When I hit my mid-30s, I had a revelation: why don’t I work less and live more? Like many people my age, I’ve been taught to relentlessly strive for success at work. Go higher, get better, achieve more. Reach for the top and don’t stop until you get there. It’s an empowering message, and one that I seized straight out of university. I got my head down and poured everything into my shiny new career as a journalist. Late hours and weekend shifts were all part of the drill. So was a three-hour daily commute. It’s only when I came up for air that I had time to ask myself, ‘Do I even want this?’.
I’m not alone in questioning the status quo. Research shows Brits typically start hating their jobs in their 30s, specifically over the age of 35. We put in more overtime than ever (often unpaid), but our career satisfaction simultaneously nosedives to an all-time low. Why would we invest so much in something that makes us miserable? And how has the promise of a golden future fallen this far short of our expectations? Maybe it’s time to re-frame the price we pay for a career. We take a closer look at a revolutionary movement that is re-shaping the way we work…
We could both do the ‘next thing’ on our respective career paths
Firstly, we need to embrace the ‘medium chill’. This revolutionary concept was first aired in 2011 by writer David Roberts, in a viral article for Grist. What does it mean? Deliberately keeping your career in low gear by turning down opportunities for promotion and bigger paychecks in order to work less and have more space to live.
“If we wanted, we could both do the ‘next thing’ on our respective career paths,” David says, writing about he and his wife’s medium chill vision. “She could move to a bigger company. I could freelance more, angle to work for bigger publications, write a book, hire a publicist, whatever. We could try to make more money. Then we could fix the water pressure in our shower, redo the back patio, get a second car, or hell, buy a bigger house closer to town. All the stuff people with more money than us do.”
But, he says, “Fact is, we just don’t want to work that hard. We already work harder than we feel like working. We like going to the park and visiting friends, taking low-key vacations and generally relaxing. Going further down our respective career paths would likely mean more work, greater responsibilities, higher stress and less time to lay around the living room.”
Strike a better balance between work and life
As David points out, “There will always be a ‘more’ and ‘better’ just beyond our reach, no matter how high we climb”. Instead, he’s made a trade-off for a better life in the now. The medium chill might seem non-ambitious at first. But in an age where we’re drilled to grab prizes wherever we can get them, it’s brilliantly subversive. Who says you have to accept a promotion or strive for more? Why not just take what you have? Your life will likely be less stressful and, crucially, your job will no longer have the power to govern what you do.
There’s also the burning issue of overtime. Britain is home to a particularly unhealthy culture of it, with the average employee putting in 68 days a year of additional unpaid hours. Some of these will be actual work. Some of them will be staring blankly at the computer. Some will be simply waiting around so you’re not the first person to leave (even though it’s gone 6pm). If you want a sunnier career and a happier working week, it’s important to say no to this way of working and strike a better balance between work and life.
In Denmark, a working week averages 33 hours, hence it regularly ranks as one of the happiest nations on earth. “Danes don’t do presenteeism and staying late is more likely to earn you a lecture on inefficiency and time management than a pat on the back,” writer Helen Russell, told Stylist. Hours typically run from 8am-4pm. As one employee remarks, “come Cinderella hour – home time – everyone from the receptionist to the CEO goes. We’re trusted to do a good job, do our work and then leave.”
Working overtime is not only stressful, it’s counterproductive
This contrasts to London, where Helen says “working long hours was considered a badge of honour. I knew one boss who did a victory lap of the building at 6.30pm every day to check who was still at their desks — promoting them accordingly. Overtime was a sign of commitment, of dedication. Or, it now emerges, stupidity.”
Working overtime is not only stressful, it’s counterproductive: studies show happy employees are significantly more effective than their overworked colleagues. Make a resolution from today – no more overtime. Ever.
Tired old office protocol is also to blame for an ocean-load of workplace sweat and tears. It’s not only annoying for employees to keep to the clock, fill out sick forms and request holidays — it’s extra hassle for overloaded bosses, too. Work time should be for work, not admin. Why not trust that everyone can do their jobs well and let them turn up when they want? Of course, this won’t work for some vocations (think medicine and education), but a growing number of innovative companies are seeing the light on this point.
If you trust the people to behave like grown-ups, they generally do
“When we launched the7stars,” says Jenny Biggam, owner of the London-based media agency, “we deliberately set out to do things differently. The bureaucracy around holiday forms and seeking approval was one of the first things to go. We extend trust and flexibility by allowing team members to work hours which suit them. The media industry is not a 9-5 environment. As long as our colleagues get the job done, they can work from home or come into the office at 6am if they choose.”
“In all that time we’ve not had one single case of people abusing the system,” Jenny notes. “In fact we’ve discovered that, if you trust the people you work with to behave like grown-ups, they generally do.”
Alisa Murphy, founder of cleantech comms agency Life Size, has a similar system of agile working in place for her team. “Everyone in my team needs to be in the office for meetings but at all other times we’re free to work from home or a cafe, or at unusual times,” she says. “We also no longer track holiday days. We found it was important not to ask people to give details of where they were or why, because the whole point is that it’s up to you.”
The time is nigh for digital nomads
This type of flexibility and trust is key to a balanced, more sustainable working culture. Seek out the companies leading the way.
With remote and flexible working on the rise, the time is nigh for digital nomads. As you turn 30, working away from the crowds is a dream – but the reality is often more complex and it takes careful handling to work.
“Being constantly on the move can ruin anyone’s focus, rhythm, and pace. However, it can be easily solved by doing slow travel and finding the right balance of how you do your workflow,” says Aileen Adalid, who quit her job at Deutsche Bank to travel the world. She now works around four hours a day on various online ventures, allowing her the freedom to be nomadic. “Always think long-term,” she told Business Insider. “Sure, it’s fine to take it easy at the start as you find your skillset or do temporary work, like volunteering. But at the very core, it’s still best to work your way towards a grand goal that will give you a more stable remote profession.”
Living in a fully remote world will be the new ‘normal’
Organisations such as Remote Year and Unsettled have propelled digital nomads into the mainstream, making remote working more than just a passing whim for the footloose and fancy-free. This isn’t a mid 30s crisis (as valid as this also is), it’s paying attention to making your working days great. “There is a stereotype that the digital nomad lifestyle is limited to young, single people looking to live out an adventure for a couple of years before settling back into ‘normal’ life,” says William Duran, the founder of Destination Dev, a coding bootcamp that gives people an in-demand skill they can travel with.
“But, the world is changing rapidly,” he told Forbes. “There are more and more communities forming to accommodate this lifestyle, as well as remote jobs, easier and cheaper flights, and shared housing options across different regions of the world. I predict that in the near future, living in a fully remote world will be the new ‘normal’. The digital nomad lifestyle won’t just be for people in their 20s but will also be accessible to all.”
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