Tribal workersToday's generation of high-earning professionals maintain that theirpersonal fulfillment comes from their jobs and the hours they work. Theyshould grow up, says Thomas Barlow.
A friend of mine recently met a young American woman who was studying on aRhodes Scholarship at Oxford. She already had two degrees from top USuniversities, had worked as a lawyer and as a social worker in the US, andsomewhere along the way had acquired a black belt in kung fu.
Now, however, her course at Oxford was coming to an end and she wasthoroughly angst-ridden about what to do next.
Her problem was no ordinary one. She couldn't decide whether she shouldmake a lot of money as a corporate lawyer/management consultant, devoteherself to charity work helping battered wives in disadvantagedcommunities, or go to Hollywood to work as a stunt double in kung fu films.
What most struck my friend was not the disparity of this woman's choices,but the earnestness and bad grace with which she ruminated on them. It wasalmost as though she begrudged her own talents, opportunities and freedom -as though the world had treated her unkindly by forcing her to make such ahard choice.
Her case is symptomatic of our times. In recent years, there has grown up aculture of discontent among the highly educated young, something that seemsto flare up, especially, when people reach their late 20s and early 30s. Itarises not from frustration caused by lack of opportunity, as may have beentrue in the past, but from an excess of possibilities.
Most theories of adult developmental psychology have a special category forthose in their late 20s and early 30s. Whereas the early to mid-20s areseen as a time to establish one's mode of living, the late 20s to early 30sare often considered a period of reappraisal.
In a society where people marry and have children young, where financialburdens accumulate early, and where job markets are inflexible, suchreappraisals may not last long.
But when people manage to remain free offinancial or family burdens, and where the perceived opportunities foralternative careers are many, the reappraisal is likely to be angst-riddenand long lasting.
Among no social group is this more true than the modern, international,professional elite: that tribe of young bankers, lawyers, consultants andmanagers for whom financial, familial, personal, corporate and(increasingly) national ties have become irrelevant.
Often they grew up in one country, were educated in another, and are nowworking in a third. They are independent, well paid, and enriched by experiences that many of their parents could only dream of. Yet, by theirlate 20s, many carry a sense of disappointment: that for all theiropportunities, freedoms and achievements, life has not delivered quite whatthey had hoped.
At the heart of this disillusionment lies a new attitude towards work. Theidea has grown up, in recent years, that work should not be just a means toan end a way to make money, support a family, or gain social prestige - butshould provide a rich and fulfilling experience in and of itself.
Jobs are no longer just jobs; they are lifestyle options.
Recruiters at financial companies, consultancies and law firms havepromoted this conception of work. Job advertisements promise challenge,wide experiences, opportunities for travel and relentless personal development.
Michael is a 33-year-old management consultant who has bought into thisvision of late-20th century work. Intelligent and well-educated - withthree degrees, including a doctorate - he works in Munich, and has a"stable, long-distance relationship" with a woman living in California. Hetakes 140 flights a year and works an average of 80 hours a week. Someweeks he works more than 100 hours.
When asked if he likes his job, he will say: "I enjoy what I'm doing interms of the intellectual challenges."
Although he earns a lot, he doesn't spend much. He rents a small apartment,though he is rarely there, and has accumulated very few possessions. Hejustifies the long hours not in terms of wealth-acquisition, but solely aspart of a "learning experience".
This attitude to work has several interesting implications, mostly to dowith the shifting balance between work and non-work, employment and leisure.
Because fulfilling and engrossing work - the sort that is thought toprovide the most intense learning experience - often requires long hours orcaptivates the imagination for long periods of time, it is easy to slipinto the idea that the converse is also true: that just by working longhours, one is also engaging in fulfilling and engrossing work.
This leads to the popular fallacy that you can measure the value of yourjob and, therefore, the amount you are learning from it) by the amount oftime you spend on it. And, incidentally, when a premium is placed onlearning rather than earning, people are particularly susceptible to thisform of self-deceit.
Thus, whereas in the past, when people in their 20s or 30s spokedisparagingly about nine-to-five jobs it was invariably because they wereseen as too routine, too unimaginative, or too bourgeois. Now, it is simplybecause they don't contain enough hours.
Young professionals have not suddenly developed a distaste for leisure, butthey have solidly bought into the belief that a 45-hour week necessarilysignifies an unfulfilling job.
Jane, a 29-year-old corporate lawyer who works in the City of London, tellsa story about working on a deal with another lawyer, a young man in hisearly 30s. At about 3am, he leant over the boardroom desk and said: Isn'tthis great? This is when I really love my job."
What most struck her about the remark was that the work was irrelevant (shesays it was actually rather boring); her colleague simply liked the idea ofworking late. "It's as though he was validated, or making his lifeimportant by this," she says.
Unfortunately, when people can convince themselves that all they need do inorder to lead fulfilled and happy lives is to work long hours, they canquickly start to lose reasons for their existence.
As they start to think of their employment as a lifestyle, fulfilling andrewarding of itself - and in which the reward is proportional to hoursworked - people rapidly begin to substitute work for other aspects of their lives.
Michael, the management consultant, is a good example of this phenomenon.He is prepared to trade (his word) not just goods and time for theexperience afforded by his work, but also a substantial measure ofcommitment in his personal relationships. In a few months, he is beingtransferred to San Francisco, where he will move in with his girlfriend.But he's not sure that living in the same house is actually going to changethe amount of time he spends on his relationship. "Once I move over, mytime involvement on my relationship will not change significantly. My job takes up most of my time and pretty much dominates what I do, when, whereand how I do it," he says.
Moreover, the reluctance to commit time to a relationship because they arelearning so much, and having such an intense and fulfilling time at work iscompounded, for some young professionals, by a reluctance to have along-term relationship at all. Today, by the time someone reaches 30, theycould easily have had three or four jobs in as many different cities -which is not, as it is often portrayed, a function of an insecure globaljob-market, but of choice.
Robert is 30 years old. He has three degrees and has worked on threecontinents. He is currently working for the United Nations in Geneva. Forhim, the most significant deterrent when deciding whether to enter into a relationship is the likely transient nature of the rest of his life."
What is the point in investing all this emotional energy and exposingmyself in a relationship, if I am leaving in two months, or if I do notknow what I am doing next year?" he says.
Such is the character of the modern, international professional, at leastthroughout his or her 20s. Spare time, goods and relationships, these areall willingly traded for the exigencies of work. Nothing is valued sohighly as accumulated experience. Nothing is neglected so much as commitment.
With this work ethic - or perhaps one should call it a professionaldevelopment ethic" - becoming so powerful, the globally mobile generationnow in its late 20s and early 30s has garnered considerable professional success.
At what point, though, does the experience-seeking end? Kathryn is asuccessful American academic, 29, who bucked the trend of her generation:she recently turned her life round for someone else. She moved to the UK,specifically, to be with a man, a decision that she says few of her contemporaries understood.
"We're not meant to say: 'I made this decision for this person. Today,you're meant to do things for yourself. If you're willing to makesacrifices for others - especially if you're a woman - that's seen as akind of weakness. I wonder, though, is doing things for yourself really empowerment, or is liberty a kind of trap?" she says.
For many, it is a trap that is difficult to break out of, not least becausethey are so caught up in a culture of professional development. And spoiltfor choice, some like the American Rhodes Scholar no doubt become paralysedby their opportunities, unable to do much else in their lives, because they are so determined not to let a single one of their chances slip.
If that means minimal personal commitments well into their 30s, so be it."Loneliness is better than boredom" is Jane's philosophy. And, although sheknows "a lot of professional single women who would give it all up if theymet a "rich man to marry", she remains far more concerned herself about finding fulfilment at work.
"I am constantly questioning whether I am doing the right thing here," shesays. "There's an eternal search for a more challenging and satisfyingoption, a better lifestyle. You always feel you're not doing the rightthing, always feel as if you should be striving for another goal," she says.
Jane, Michael, Robert and Kathryn grew up as part of a generation withfewer social constraints determining their futures than has been true forprobably any other generation in history. They were taught at school thatwhen they grew up they could "do anything", "be anything". It was an ideathat was reinforced by popular culture, in films, books and television.
The notion that one can do anything is clearly liberating. But life withoutconstraints has also proved a recipe for endless searching, endlessquestioning of aspirations. It has made this generation obsessed withself-development and determined, for as long as possible, to minimise personal commitments in order to maximise the options open to them.
One might see this as a sign of extended adolescence. Eventually, they willbe forced to realise that living is as much about closing possibilities asit is about creating them.