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  • Writer's pictureNeal Moore

Have Work Milestones Replaced Life Milestones?

My mum text me yesterday, Tuesday, asking if I had time for a chat. We usually talk on weekends so I responded with the following:

My ever-understanding mother kindly responded thus:

But it got me thinking, I wonder if she would have been so understanding had I responded like this:

It strikes me that I/we/the society I inhabit really do value work above and beyond any other kind of activity. We will cancel almost anything for work, but rarely will we cancel work for anything. This attitude so permeates my surroundings that, like the proverbial fish unaware that it swims in water, I barely notice it and how toxic it is.

I know that where I come from, England, a large part of this comes down to what is called the Protestant work ethic:

The Protestant work ethic, also known as the Calvinist work ethic[1] or the Puritan work ethic,[2] is a work ethic concept in theology, sociology, economics and history which emphasizes that diligence, discipline, and frugality[3] are a result of a person's subscription to the values espoused by the Protestant faith, particularly Calvinism. The concept is often credited with helping to define the societies of Northern, Central and Western Europe as well as the United States of America.[6][7]

But also, as marriage, home-ownership and child-rearing become less desirable/more out-of-reach in advanced economies, the only milestones we have left to mark a life arise from work. Job offers, promotions and pay rises provide both the milestones and the validation we all crave to prove, to ourselves as much as anybody else, that we are living "proper lives", with measurable forward momentum and demonstrable achievements.

Achievements, in this context, are not things that you have done but things that you have won; the aforementioned job offers, promotions and pay rises, because they come from external, validating sources. Personal bests don't count, if they did we wouldn't need to post them on Strava would we?

What will it take for us to prioritise our non-work lives and be quietly content with our own small achievements?

There is evidence that the pandemic has exposed and, in many cases, increased work-life imbalance. This in turn has catalysed conversation around Universal Basic Incomes and the four day week (even in industrious Singapore!). My initial gut reaction to these radical concepts betrays my conservative, suburban roots e.g. "Why should people get something for nothing?", and, "What if I want to work five days a week (or more)?". But like most conservative attitudes, mine too are rooted in fear. What will I do without work? How will I validate my life?

As it happens I know the answer, for I found it on a recent three-week excursion to London and wrote about it here. And yet the fear remains; what if I get to the end of my life and regret not "achieving" more at work? Alternatively, what if all I achieve is a lower handicap, a greater appreciation of literature and films, or just being a great father - does that count?

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