The word career makes me break out in hives. Not because having a career is inherently wrong, but because of the implications that it has in our society. A typical career means showing up to a job at least five days a week to work 40+ hours and climb up some proverbial ladder, whether it be pay, responsibility, or industry knowledge. But what that means for many of us in the workforce is a lopsided work-life balance.

In a recent study, the World Health Organization discovered 488 million people worldwide were exposed to long working hours, amounting to more than 55 hours per week. Overwork leads to an estimated 35% higher risk of having a stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from heart disease. In 2016, overwork resulted in more than 745,000 people dying from the aforementioned symptoms—which really makes you think about what a standard workweek should look like for everyone.

Recently, I came across a TikTok video suggesting 20 hours, four-day workweeks should be our goal. In the comments of this TikTok, one user suggested that this should actually be a reality by now. With a little more research, I found that in 1928, economist John Maynard Keynes actually predicted society would shift to 15-hour workweeks within a century. He believed this shorter workweek would be enough to meet demand as rates of productivity and industry increased. A few years later, in 1933, U.S. Congress almost passed a 30-hour workweek bill as an alternative to unemployment during the Great Depression. However, this bill did not pass. By the 1940s, workers for Kellogg’s took matters into their own hands and voted in favor of six-hour workdays. By 1985, however, Kelloggs was back to eight-hour days.

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I have to admit, I’m miffed that society is still so far from Keynes’ prediction. The pandemic has exposed many of us to society’s labor flaws. In fact, four-day workweeks were proposed at the height of the pandemic as people reevaluated what was important to them. For example, Spain is testing four-day workweeks without dropping workers’ pay. Additionally, New Zealand and Japan are trialing lower hours. Furthermore, fewer hours have been associated with better work. In 2019, Microsoft tried out a four-day workweek in Japan, finding that it boosted productivity by 40%. Many believe shorter workweeks help place more of an onus on productivity and output rather than time spent in a workplace. Others believe shorter workweeks are actually better for the economy, workers, and the environment.

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The trend toward less time in-office also reflects today’s workforce reprioritizing flexibility. According to a LinkedIn Workforce Confidence survey, 50% of the respondents said the flexibility of hours or location has become more important to them when looking for a new job. Keep in mind, an additional 45% voted for work-life balance. According to Prudential Financial’s Pulse of the American Worker survey, 68% of workers want a hybrid workplace model in which they can work both remotely and in-office. In addition, 1 in 4 workers is considering quitting their job because they’re looking for a new job with more flexibility.

Though I wasn’t asked to be part of any of these surveys, I also would have voted for flexibility. The pandemic has made it clear to me that I don’t want to live to work, but rather work to live. I value my free time and I want to protect it at all costs because it helps me perform better at my job. But flexibility isn’t always afforded to every single person in the workforce. Finding a job in the first place is already a matter of luck, privilege, or experience depending on who you’re talking to and what field they work in. This means that a lot of us don’t have the option of being picky when it comes to jobs, which can eliminate the possibility of working for an employer who accommodates our needs and values. And this is a major reason why women are leaving the workforce at such a rapid pace.

Since last year, nearly 2.4 million women exited the workforce, compared to less than 1.8 million men. According to CBS News, more women, and women of color in particular, work in essential jobs that require them to physically show up to work. This means less flexibility in their schedule, time, and location. And since most women are still responsible for caregiving in the household, unlike men, women aren’t always able to balance a job on top of that. This is one of the reasons why childcare has become such an important topic amongst legislators.

Because people are leaving the workforce, industries like fast food are currently facing labor shortages. According to Business Insider, the restaurant industry is an “exceptionally difficult business” for workers because of long hours, little pay, and a high rate of sexual harassment and assault. During the pandemic, dining rooms were closed and late-night services, such as McDonald’s 24-hour service, were halted. Now, fast-food workers aren’t interested in returning to a pre-COVID workplace. In the last couple of weeks, people have published photos and videos of the signs fast-food workers have posted to warn customers of this issue.

On May 19, 2021, McDonald’s workers in 15 U.S. cities went on strike to demand the fast-food chain pay its workers at least $15 an hour. After all, companies like Amazon and Target already offer a $15 minimum wage. But the Fight for $15 doesn’t account for healthcare, paid leave, or overtime pay—benefits that should be afforded to anyone working any job. And, if we learned anything in the last year, it’s that front-line workers need to be recognized more and paid better.

Care workers, positions primarily held by women and people of color, are also experiencing “low wages, long hours, and scant benefits” for decades. However, care workers are looking for financial security and more normal work schedules. While unions have helped bargain for living wages and benefits for home-care aid workers, not all states have these unions. In the U.S., President Joe Biden proposed to spend $400 billion on home- and community-based services, which could offer all care jobs better wages and benefits—if it passes.

But for many of us, change in the workplace isn’t happening fast enough. This is why people are starting to take matters into their own hands. In South Korea, millennials are pushing back against conventional success in favor of following their passions. Don’t Worry Village is one project that helps 20 and 30-something-year-olds find happiness after failure or burning out in the corporate world. Their slogan is “It’s okay to rest. It’s okay to fail” and they practice this ethos by offering people the opportunity to retreat to the village and experiment by creating their own projects. In addition, in southern Seoul, there is the “School of Quitting Jobs,” which offers 50 courses on topics like managing an identity crisis, how to brainstorm a Plan B, and how-to-YouTube.

While the phrase “I do not dream of labor” has become common amongst millennials and Gen Z-ers, it’s not a joke or a meme. When we look only through the lens of capital, labor defines our value. When we prioritize trade, industry, and profit over human life, it leaves those of us who make those things possible unable to enjoy living. When productivity and progress take precedent over existence, life isn’t lived.

Today, a job or career can feel like trying to swim to the surface of the ocean while our leg is caught in seaweed. We need radical change because long gone are the days in which people are okay with sitting at their desks well into the night or being on their feet servicing customers for 10+ hours. No one ever wanted their workday to look like this and yet these scenarios are commonplace in our world today. While it can be hard to express the need for flexibility to future employers, change can start with us—if we’re bold enough to ask.

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  • Kayla Webb

    Kayla Webb is a writer with a bachelor's degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. When she's not obsessing over words and sentences, Kayla can be found trying to read too many books at one time, snuggling with her cats, and fangirling over everything pop culture.

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