Is hustle culture dead?

Are we waking up to the idea that more work equals more problems? Luciana Bellini explores why being a  part of the hustle culture is no longer a badge of honour

If the noughties and 2010s were the eras that defined ‘hustle culture’, the 2020s appear to have sounded the death knell for a philosophy that asks us to work ourselves to the bone. Post-pandemic, the world has woken up to a new way of working: one that does away with the daily commute and 9-to-5 grind in favour of a more flexible, work-from-anywhere approach. But is the hustle really dead? Are we done with toxic productivity for good? And, if so, what has taken its place?

Looking into where this overwork culture has left us, the stats make for depressing reading. A UK government report revealed that 914,000 people suffer from work-related stress, anxiety or depression. A 2018 mental health study found 74 per cent of UK adults have felt ‘so stressed at some point over the past year, they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope’. The stats are doubly shocking for women. A McKinsey study showed that 42 per cent of women feel burned out, compared with 32 per cent in 2020 (for men, the total jumped from 28 to 35 per cent). It’s hardly surprising that 2021 came to be known as the year of ‘the great resignation’, after workers all over the world quit their jobs at historic rates.

Showing off how busy or stressed you are is simply another way to buy into the hustle culture. Who can forget how, in 2016, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said that working a 130-hour week was possible, ‘if you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower, and how often you go to the bathroom.’ It seems the tech world has a lot to answer for when it comes to society’s obsession with toxic productivity. After all, it was Elon Musk who, in 2018, tweeted to his millions of followers: ‘Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.’

Of course, most of us aren’t trying to change the world – at least not in the way Musk is referring to. Most of us just want to have a fulfilling, happy and healthy life: one that involves work, yes, but one that is also rich with love, laughter, friendship and freedom. In a post-pandemic world, sacrificing yourself at the altar of hard work no longer makes sense. Now that we’ve seen how easily the world can be turned on its head, doesn’t it feel more important to live in the moment than to constantly strive for the next arbitrary achievement or marker of success?

Emma Gannon, author of the book The Success Myth: Letting Go Of Having It All, certainly thinks so. A self-confessed recovering ‘success addict’, Gannon wrote the book to try to explain why the traditional version of success is leaving us feeling lonely, unfulfilled and dispirited. To those looking at her life from the outside, it seems as if she has it all: her award-winning podcast, Ctrl Alt Delete, has more than 12 million downloads, and she’s written four nonfiction books and a well-received novel. Yet Gannon admits she was burned out and confused about why she felt so unhappy, even as she was striving for more.

The turning point came after a career highlight, when she was asked to give a prestigious keynote speech. Afterwards, she went back to her hotel room and sobbed. ‘My Instagram feed looked full, busy and exciting,’ she recalled. ‘Friends were messaging me, saying, “You’re killing it.” What was the “it” I was killing? My soul probably.’ Her book has been written as a manifesto to craft work – and life – on your own terms, giving us the confidence to walk away from the hustle culture of having it all, and instead uncover our own path to fulfilment.

In her book Free Time: Lose the Busywork, Love Your Business, author Jenny Blake explains that time is not money – time is life force. Described as ‘a playbook to free your mind, time, and team for your best work’, the book explains how to operate effectively and intuitively, without getting bogged down in ‘busywork’. ‘When you run your own company, “hard” work no longer has a direct correlation to the profit you generate,’ writes Blake. ‘There is no guarantee that pouring more time into your business will yield positive results.’

As she explains, working less is often harder than working more, as it requires building sophisticated systems and trusting your team. But it’s more than worth it for the rewards. Blake now works an average of ten to twenty hours per week and pulls in nearly $700,000 of revenue each year.

The shift in work attitude – which some are coining ‘the age of anti-ambition’ – has seen a marked change in the way we view our careers. This is doubly true if you happen to be a millennial or a member of Gen Z, who see having work flexibility as a necessity, rather than a nice-to-have.

‘The future isn’t about where we work, but how,’ say Anne Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel in their book Out of Office. Our jobs no longer form the basis of our identities; now, for many, they’re just something you do to pay the bills. That’s clear to see in the rise of the ‘quiet quitting’ craze on TikTok: a movement that refers not to leaving your job but to doing the bare minimum and putting in no more time, effort or enthusiasm than is absolutely necessary.

If hustle culture is dead, it’s now time to usher in the era of human culture. What that looks like in practice will be different for each person. For me, it means working only three days a week, so that I can spend the other two with my three-year-old daughter before she starts school next year. It means saying yes to the commissions and projects that excite me and that fit within my schedule, and turning down those that don’t. For some of my friends, it means joining the estimated 35 million digital nomads that are now travelling and working remotely from locations around the world.

At the end of last year, 100 UK companies signed up for a permanent four-day working week with no loss of pay, in a policy described as ‘transformative’.

There is change in the air, and it all appears to be moving in the right direction. It would seem the working world is finally waking up to what Blake summarises so succinctly in her book: ‘Now I know, deep within my bones, how non-negotiable it is to be present in my business and life.’

Next: Interview – Shades of Perfection >>


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