Even the best job will never love you back. So where do we find our life’s purpose? | Zoe Willliams

Everyone’s fixated on offices. Will we ever return? Will the extroverts return and the introverts stay at home? Will the high performers go back and the coasters stick to Zoom? Or will it be the other way round? Maybe anyone with a sense of purpose and direction can work from their bedroom, perched on an ironing board, and you only need IRL colleagues if you’re aimless and chaotic. But that conversation is actually standing in for (and masking) a more profound one about work itself. “Hustle culture” – working all the time, finding your fulfilment and identity there, pledging yourself to your employer like a serf, having a side-hustle to plug any gaps, configuring yourself as an instrument of productivity – has taken quite a hit over the past 18 months.

Some of us have been forced by catastrophe to think about what really matters. Some have realised that, for all that we loved our job, our job didn’t love us back. Some have worked so hard that we’ve forgotten what the point was, and emptied the tank of drive and ambition. And some have had such a prolonged period of inactivity that our muscles of activity for activity’s sake have simply atrophied.

For all that to have aligned at once is a once-in-a-generation event. At the height of the pandemic, 63% of people supported a four-day week; only 12% were against it. It sounds like a bigger shift when you call it a three-day weekend. Either way, it is as far from hustle culture as you can imagine.

So we’re ready for part two of this conversation: where, if not from work, is a person supposed to get their sense of achievement? Intimate relationships count for a lot, but you don’t wake up every morning with a drive to do them better. Where do you direct your competitiveness, your urge not just to improve but to measure your improvement? It can’t just be triathlons.

The people to ask are retirees. They’ve solved this puzzle. They’re just keeping quiet about it.

Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist.


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