Not long ago, in the middle of the night, a good friend from high school messaged me. They were exhausted from overworking. On top of that, they had just split up with their significant other, who—hurt from a lack of couple’s time and communication—immediately booked the earliest flight possible back to their city. My friend was shattered, to the point that they could not shed any tear. They were in dire need of someone to listen to their story, but they struggled to tell it. To say I was shocked would be an exaggeration, for this was not the first time said friend had confided in me about the fragility of the façade they had built for themselves as an emerging creative worker in advertising, who had moved out of their parents’ almost right after Year 12 to the other end of the country, who had taken all the steps needed, leaping from one stone in the river to another to try and cross over to the professional side. Admittedly, I often found myself envying their successes and dedication to the job.
The conversation, however, got me thinking about overworking as a trait expected of young people entering the workforce. Young and wild but cannot be free from the working culture’s and their own expectations.
Celebrated as the DIY generation who want nothing more than to be their own bosses (Brown 2018), current young workers (age 16-24) possess an entrepreneurial spirit, pride in authenticity and exceptionality and are often found to aspire to uphold these qualities, even when they have to work under someone else. When exceptionality is the new celebrated, the competition then becomes who can work the hardest to build and maintain a brand of themselves, for themselves, to ascend the career ladder. The number of work hours is treated as a criterion, against which young workers are measured regarding their adherence and commitment to the chosen career path—be it “Career 1.0” (stable jobs, advancement throughout a working life, with few changes in where they work) or “Career 2.0” (gigs and casual positions to build a portfolio in the gig economy) (Taggart 2018).
“If I can’t see you, you don’t exist” (Fourie 2018) is not simply a warning for start-up companies in a nearly saturated market; it is a warning for the new generations of young employees, whose passion does not just set them apart but is a prerequisite for success according to many employers (Brooks 2016), and whose passion drives them to voluntarily take on extra tasks, to—like my friend—stay back at the office until 10 or 11 at night, never complaining. Keep your head down for now, so you can keep your head up later, they tell themselves. They are not the main culprit perpetuating this culture of overworking, however. In a way, their passion for the job and determination to follow their career paths render them exploited by employers, who are part of a larger landscape of working culture. It is the same culture that had long been glorifying individuals like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk for almost obsessive overwork (McGregor 2018) before only very recently expressing more criticisms for this lifestyle, the same culture that had virally spread the slogan ‘Do what you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life”. It implies to young workers that as long as they are working on something they are passionate about, it is not work, but is life.
“Emotional participation, where we get to share who we are vicariously through and because of your brand” (Fourie 2018) is a technique in brand-building for start-ups and is applicable to the overworking culture among young workers. In the article ‘Analysis: Elon Musk is the ‘poster boy’ of a culture that celebrates ‘obsessive overwork’, McGregor (2018) stated that in the current work culture, you have to invest into your work with passion, and who you are can only be seen in your work and your personal brand as a worker, because working is no longer merely a way to earn a living, but a means of finding life purposes. Petriglieri, a professor and director of INSEAD business school, did not beat around the bush when he was consulted about this aspect of the overwork culture—”We equate talent with your willingness to put work at the centre of your life,” he said.
When one is young, they are seen as full of passion and full of freedom to fulfil that passion, to take up extra hours, to carry others’ part: very few people in their early twenties have settled down with attachments to family and in-laws and a permanent job—according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2013 the median age at marriage was 31.5 years for men and 29.5 years for women (Ward 2015), and it is unlikely to have decreased with the transition to the very financially unstable gig economy. Where I come from (Vietnam, a South East Asian country with a largely different work culture), the numbers are not too different: 26 for men, but 23 for women in 2009 (Nguyen 2012); anecdotally, the number for both has risen in the past decade, as young people take more values in being professionally and financially dependent before getting married.
As much as they may seem to experience far more freedom to ascend the career ladder than their older counterparts, young people who overworks are prone to the psychological captivity of mental health issues: according to SafeWork NSW (2015), in 2015, one in sixteen workers age 16-24 in Australia has depression, and one in six has anxiety. By seeing their freedom—often from the ties of marriage and parenting—as a resource that must be, according to unspoken rules, invested in their work life, young workers risk turning their lives to evolve around their work. When the work takes up such a large part of their life, their value to the company as a worker becomes the measure for self-worth, and overwork “chips away” at their personal values (Greesonbach n.d., Denman 2014), as the person becomes increasingly fixated on the next work goal or the next career accomplishment (Killinger 2012).
To be obsessed with working hard can be a dangerous distraction (Spencer 2013) from other equally crucial and valuable aspects of life—friends, family etc. Above all, to place the focal point of one’s life on work at the age (pre-25) when—according to the University of Rochester’s Medical Centre (n.d.)—the brain is going through some major finalisation of development in the prefrontal cortex, the part responsible for sound judgement and awareness of long-term consequences, is to distract one from knowing themselves—including what they uphold at work and in life as part of their value-centred professionalism. To be able to uphold these values even when they are contradicted or violated, one needs to know who they are and what qualities they are ready to stand for (Bowles 2018a), and here is where narrative practice comes into play. Originally a therapeutic tool, narrative practice allows for the emergence of dominant stories through conversation (Dulwich Centre n.d.); these are the stories one tells about themselves that have affected the outcome of their actions in the past and present and will have implications for steps they take in the future. If one’s dominant story is their pride in work-related successes, the person is in danger of losing sight of who they are as a human. In value-centred professionalism, the core values should be those that are human because they are what gives the work deeper meaning than a KPI report can ever do.
In re-evaluating one’s values, an overworking young person (or any worker) can interview themselves using certain narrative techniques—as narrative interviewing is a practice of care (Bowles 2018c), to talk to oneself, earnestly, is to practice self-care, which can help relieve the mental baggage put on their shoulder by the overwork culture. One of the social functions of narrative practice is to look at ourselves in context, seeing our stories as external to us (outsider witnessing), and this way of double-listening to our own stories can help us connect the dots backwards to make sense of the past but also connect them into the future, to present ourselves as making positive steps towards a better future of work and of life (Bowles 2018c).
The young worker can look back on one small step they took that resulted in something positive to start to see a pattern that enables similar positive outcomes (Bowles 2018a), and ultimately to name the value they uphold in those situations. They might not be overworking because they are overly ambitious, but simply because to them conscientiousness is key to work and life and whatever they do, they put their utmost effort into it. Similarly, they can interview themselves about a value they hold dear yet is not present in certain work situations—the absent but implicit that offers “a way of understanding how we react to situations we don’t like” (Bowles 2018b). The person would name a situation where they felt a contradiction between what they would have preferred to happen with what was occurring—maybe they were not recognised for an innovative solution during a meeting, or their proposal was ignored by those present. Maybe they would like to be acknowledged even just privately by their higher-up, not because they are a narcissistic workaholic but because they want to be able to contribute to the workplace in a positive way, and a simple acknowledgement goes a long way in reassuring them that they are carrying their part.
To identify these things about oneself is not to delve into negative self-talk, but to see how these qualities that are being turned against their wellbeing at work can be perceived and applied in a way that can lead to unique outcomes. A conscientious person might let themselves get sucked into the vortex of work and justify it as being dedicated to their job, but their dedication can transcend the workplace into their relationships with those around them. Through narrative practice, young people entering the workforce can identify where to draw the line between work/life and not excuse the current work climate for expecting us to work insane hours or put work at the centre of their life. We can learn to tell stories about ourselves of which the centrality is not just the work we do, but above all, who we are (Taggart 2018), and what we value in work and in life.
“What are you going to do with your life?” In one way or another it seemed that people had been asking her this forever … Better by far to simply try and be good and courageous and bold and to make a difference. Not change the world exactly, but the bit around you. (David Nicholls, One Day)
- Bowles, K 2018a, ‘BCM313 Week 1: Introduction to subject & narrative practices’, seminar, University of Wollongong.
- Bowles, K 2018b, ‘BCM313 Week 4: Learning from how we react to problems’, seminar, University of Wollongong.
- Bowles, K 2018c, ‘BCM313 Week 6: Learning from the professional narratives of strangers’, seminar, University of Wollongong.
- Brooks, C 2016, ‘Young Professionals Need Passion Above All Else to Succeed‘, Business News Daily, 23 June, viewed 20 October 2018, <https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/9171-manage-next-generation.html>.
- Brown, L 2018, ‘DIY Generation: How to be your own boss by 25’, BBC News, 31 August, viewed 31 August 2018 <https://www.bbc.com/news/newsbeat-45970106>.
- Denman, S 2014, ‘Overworking has high costs’, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 October, viewed 23 October 2018, <https://www.smh.com.au/business/overworking-has-high-costs-20141017-117lua.html>.
- Dulwich Centre n.d., What is Narrative Therapy, Dulwich Centre, viewed 24 October 2018, <https://dulwichcentre.com.au/what-is-narrative-therapy/>.
- Fourie, R 2018, ‘The Age of Authenticity’, The Startup, viewed 23 October 2018, <https://medium.com/swlh/if-i-cant-see-you-you-don-t-exist-3bee33056779>.
- Greesonbach, S n.d., ‘Why We Need to Stop Idolizing Overwork’, CultureIQ, viewed 21 October 2018, <https://cultureiq.com/need-stop-idolizing-overwork/>.
- Killinger, B 2012, ‘Understanding the Dynamics of Workaholism—Obsession’, Psychology Today, 14 February, viewed 20 October 2018, <https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-workaholics/201202/understanding-the-dynamics-workaholism-obsession>.
- McGregor, J 2018, ‘Analysis: Elon Musk is the ‘poster boy’ of a culture that celebrates ‘obsessive overwork’, Chicago Tribune, 22 August, viewed 20 October 2018, <https://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-biz-elon-musk-overwork-culture-20180822-story.html>.
- Nguyen, TB 2012, ‘Age at First Marriage in Recent Years Vietnam’, Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 491-496, <http://www.mcser.org/images/stories/2_journal/mjssjan2012/nguyen%20thanh%20binh.pdf>.
- SafeWork NSW 2015, ‘Young workers and mental health’, SafeWork NSW, <http://www.safework.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0017/60911/Young-workers-and-mental-health-flyer.pdf>.
- Spencer, D 2013, ‘Obsession with ‘hard work’ is a dangerous distraction’, Conversation, 2 October, viewed 20 October 2018, <https://theconversation.com/obsession-with-hard-work-is-a-dangerous-distraction-18809>.
- Taggart, A 2018, ‘The case against career’, Quartz, 28 July, viewed 23 October 2018, <https://qz.com/work/1342191/a-modern-workforce-needs-a-new-take-on-careers/>.
- University of Rochester Medical Center n.d., ‘Understanding the teenage brain’, University of Rochester Medical Center, viewed 23 October 2018, <https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=1&ContentID=3051>.
- Ward, M 2015, ‘The best age to get married’, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 July, viewed 23 October 2018, <https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life-and-relationships/the-best-age-to-get-married-20150723-giiuh0.html>.