“I’m probably being so dramatic and annoying,” a girl says, as tears run from her mascara-ed eyes. “The 9-5 schedule is crazy. How do you have friends? How do you have time for dating? I don't have time for anything, I'm so stressed out.”
She’s the star of a TikTok video that went viral last week, and her words have since become a battle cry for a whole generation. When the video – which has been viewed nearly 50 million times across TikTok and Twitter – first started to spread, the comments weren’t sympathetic. She was trashed by neoliberal hustle and grind stans – most of whom seemed old enough to be her parents. “Gen Z girl finds out what a real job is like,” one X (formerly Twitter) user sneered. “Grown-ups don’t prioritise friends, or dating. Grown-ups prioritise being able to provide,” another commenter wrote, neglecting the fact that if you’re young, single, and have no friends, there isn’t really anyone to “provide” for.
But then the tide began to turn. People started to point out that “Gen Z girl” was right, actually. Work sucks! No one has any time for anything! Within days, she had become the figurehead for an increasingly common sentiment: We don’t want our lives to revolve around work anymore.The anti-work debate is often dominated by buzzy internet trends – “quiet quitting”, “lazy girl jobs” etc – but what we’re really witnessing is a massive social shift. Between 1981 and 2022, the percentage of the British public who said it would be a good thing if less importance was placed on work rose from 26 percent to 43 percent, according to the World Values Survey. Speaking about the findings, Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King's College London, said they signalled a “steady drift towards a greater focus on getting work-life balance right”, with “people less likely to think work should be prioritised over spare time, that hard work leads to success, or that not working makes people lazy.”
Yet Duffy also highlighted a glaring generational divide: More than half of Brits aged between their mid-20s and early 40s said they’d prefer less emphasis on work in their lives, whereas older generations were more likely to say careers should be prioritised – even as they themselves retire from the workforce.Cultural anthropologist Dr Alex Gapud – who works as a consultant for the employee engagement and communications consultancy firm, scarlettabbott – thinks some of this ideological rift stems from the pandemic, when working from home allowed people to nurture a more enriching work-life balance. “The past few years showed us a powerful and viable alternative to the model of working on location for 40 hours a week,” he says. “Now it’s near impossible to close Pandora’s box.” For those who’ve just started working, this ‘alternative’ is the norm. “This is a generation that only knows this alternative model [of working from home],” Gapud says. Essentially, this is a culture clash between different visions of what work is.“Both senior leaders and Gen Z have their ‘native’ models that seem obvious and inherent to them,” Gapud suggests, “while not necessarily seeing the value or validity of the other side.” But, in this battle between “senior leaders” and “youngsters” (some of whom are actually in their forties), one side certainly has more power: The bosses and CEOs pushing to get everyone back to the office.
Rewatching the now notorious TikTok video, what struck me was how “Gen Z girl” minimised her own feelings. Repeatedly calling herself “dramatic”, she says she’s probably so emotional because she’s “getting [her] period”. It’s like she’d internalised the criticisms people would throw at her before they’d even said them – like she, herself, thought she was a “snowflake”.It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say young people have been gaslit by older generations when it comes to work. As wages stagnate and costs rise, the generation that got free university education and cheap housing have somehow convinced young people that if we’re sad and stressed then it's simply a problem with our work ethic. We’re too sensitive, entitled, or demanding to hold down a “real job”, the story goes, when really most of us just want a decent night’s sleep and less debt.Seb, 27, is a lighting designer and has been at his job for six months – he VICE he “actively resents it”, in his words.“My employers are traditional 9-6 enthusiasts,” he says, before joking: “Where are all the 9-5s people talk about?” Add on Seb’s 50 minute commute, and he’s got an 11 hour work day, which, he says, drains his productivity. In fact, he writes this to me in an email from his office desk. “I have to be seen here, pretending to do something,” he says, “even though I've already finished my work for the day.”
Seb’s from Mexico, and says there’s a Mexican phrase he thinks about often, which translates to “ass time”. “It’s about the time your ass is on the chair, regardless of whether it's quiet or busy,” he says. If it wasn’t for enforced “ass time”, he reckons, “I could do the work of 40 hours a week in about 20 or 30.”“The 9-5 fosters ineffective working habits,” says Harriet, a community producer and culture tutor in her early 30s. “I can get loads done in a few hours but I have to stay in the office for no good reason. The rest of the time is spent clock-watching, making tea, and chatting.” She thinks structuring the day around contracted hours is “pointless, stifling and demotivating”, but her employers are reluctant to change this “traditional” office model. Even since COVID-19, she says, “There’s a pervasive attitude that working from home is slacking off.”Seb is in the same boat. Whenever he asks to work from home – “like, to receive the plumber, or because the trains are on strike, or simply because I feel crap and would benefit from a little home time without having to go through the pantomime of being too sick to work” – his employers refuse.“They say there’s no benefit to the company,” he says. “I've asked if employee wellbeing is not a benefit, but it seems it isn't.”Gen Z’s expectations are different, says Finn Bartram, HR and careers expert at People Managing People. "They believe they are more than their jobs, and they expect their employer to know that too. It's not about working hard; they're absolutely willing to do that. But they aren't as willing to live to work as previous generations were,” he says. “Part of this is because it's a generation more attuned to mental health needs.” In his opinion, young people are now better at realising “this is my time for the things I need to do for me, my health, my happiness, my sense of self,” as he puts it.
Work is being pushed down the priority list in favour of more enriching activities. Seb, for example, is an artist and likes to paint. “No good painting can come after nine hours of looking at a screen followed by a 50 minute commute,” he says. One of his friend’s recently said to him: “If I had a shorter work week and a dignified salary then they'd get a well-rested, enthusiastic and switched-on employee. Instead, they're getting a poor and exhausted worker.”Ironically, the pressure to be a “good worker” often sabotages people’s ability to be one. “I'm just not a very good employee,” says Andy, 32, who’s speaking to VICE anonymously. He doesn't buy the office cliche that "you can bring your whole self to work." He continues: “The majority of people act so differently, so repressed, in an office environment.” This charade takes an emotional toll: Andy recently “had a mental breakdown” due to intense workplace pressure. Now, he says, “I look longingly at countries trialling a four-day work week.”He needn’t look too far. Simon Ursell is the Managing Director of London-based environmental consultancy firm, Tyler Grange, which recently adopted the four-day work week for good. “The UK has an unhealthy culture where it is seen as a badge of honour to work all the time,” Ursell tells VICE. “Yet our productivity levels are low and our younger talent don’t want to be defined by a burnout lifestyle.”The four-day work week seems to have been a success for Ursell: Tyler Grange is now producing 109 percent more work over four days than it did in five, absenteeism is down by 66 percent, and – according to the company’s internal app, Alertness – employees are 28 percent less tired and 14 percent happier.Not everyone’s happy – Ursell’s had hate mail about adopting the scheme. “There are those who are so wedded to this working pattern as an idea, they become quite angry about changing it,” he says. But he’s not worried about these obstacles in the long-term. “Change is happening at such a rapid rate,” he says, “an ideological adherence to new working patterns is going to make you irrelevant, very quickly.”It’s always worth reminding ourselves that the 9-5 shift is itself a relatively recent invention, not some sort of eternal truth, and hopefully soon we’ll see it as a relic from a bygone age. “It was set up to support our patriarchal society – men went to work and women stayed at home to cook and look after the family,” says Emma Last, founder of the workplace wellbeing programme Progressive Minds. “Things have obviously changed a lot since then, and we’re trying to find the balance between cooking meals, looking after ourselves, spending time with family and friends, and having relationships. Isn’t it a good thing that Gen Z are questioning it all?”@eloisehendy