When I was a freshman at university ten years ago, I was very confident: I thought that times were great for women. Germany had changed — the conservative pressure was gone and there were more options than working part-time as a mother. Until the late 90s, this was the exact standard life model for many women. This is how the Western German millennials grew up.
But finally, my generation would experience what it means to have the same freedom as a man in choosing a career and in private life. We thought — “we can have it all”.
Fast forward 10 years: I see how one clever woman after the other in my Berlin environment has fallen into the same trap as men have done for decades — internalizing the mantra of “work hard, play hard”. The belief that you need to give your all for success is luring with a promise of self-growth and opportunity. But we all experienced the downside of diving into careers, staying late in the office and not getting enough: It all has a toll on private life — 60-hour-weeks, short-termed business trips, constant availability and the tiredness resulting from this pay their tribute. There is simply less time left, but above all mental space for friends, family or the partner.
Sure — the salary, the promotion, the visibility do feel great. My female friends and me have felt the kick and motivation when you can reap the fruits of hard work and seem to receive more respect the higher the position on the business card was. But was this what the majority used to dream of? While studying, I can’t remember anyone wishing “later, I want to have really long working days!”
The original plan was to find an interesting job where you have “freedom of design” — whatever we thought that meant — and “make a difference”. At the same time, hardly anyone had the idea that this would often involve a lot of overtime. Are 40 hours full-time not enough?
What had happened in the meantime, however, was that the “Hustle Culture” had started to shape work ethics — a trend that glorifies working extra hours.
Why? Most will remember the Great Recession 2008/2009 — jobs lost their worth and the fear of losing social status was quite a strong motivator. Although Germany was never hit as hard as the US, the cultural impact cut deep.
However, this was not about work per se, but rather about how this work ethic appeals to those idealistic desires that we felt early on. “Create something meaningful” is written on the walls of the coworking spaces and startups across the world. Gradually, corporations, consulting firms and the Big Four were also increasingly asking to “change the world” — at least in their image campaigns.
It’s brilliant — why go home early when you’re just about to create something “meaningful”? There is no doubt that those start-ups that actually advance the economy and society do exist. Hustle culture does not have its origins in Silicon Valley for nothing, where the great unicorns emerged and actually changed the way people communicate, learn, work and consume.
Unsurprisingly, the followers of the hustle culture believe in their gurus from the tech world of the West Coast — and it is those figures who feed the minds who want to leave a lasting mark in their lifetimes.
Elon Musk announced to his 30 million followers on Twitter that nobody has changed the world in 40 hours a week — his believers applauded, strongly convinced that this was the only way to be great.
Changing the world — could there be a more inspirational goal for a secular, spiritually thirsty generation? Could anything substitute church and their communities better than a start-up where you work “not in a team but in a family” and everyone shares the same convictions?
The truth is — for many, investing in your work ethics is the closest state to a transcending spiritual satisfaction.
Companies are aware of this and no matter how pale and conservative, more and more try to squeeze a touch of “purpose” into their employer branding strategy — even in the driest of industries.
After all, what makes the symbiosis of hustle culture and purpose-driven ideas so successful are the social sanctions it has created in many places. Perhaps you have experienced those sanctions yourself — you feel them when you get a judgmental look from your coworkers or boss when you leave the office on time — without overtime. Those signals in PR firms, e-commerce startups or consulting corporations are what keeps you glued to your desk — even though you could be done for the day. Because if you believe in the higher cause of your product or firm — why would you betray the mission by putting something else first, you’re your private life?
What the workers’ movement in Europe has fought for in the 20th century is now being torn down by workers “voluntarily” setting a high bar for work life. European trade unions have managed for decades to balance business interests with labor rights.
The case of Germany is a striking success story: during the post-war era, the Wirtschaftswunder (engl: economic miracle) led to impressive productivity and growth rates — while work hours were reduced and wage tariffs increased.
Unsurprisingly, those times are over: since 1965 the industrial sector — the driving force of many trade unions — has shrunken by half. As in all Western countries, large part of the workforce nowadays is employed in the service sector. This led to a misconception: Because services are not as stressful and physically demanding as industrial jobs, it seems to be acceptable to work more.
A major achievement in the post-war period was to reduce the weekly hours from 60 to first 48 hours, later to 40. The simple idea behind this: rested employees achieve better results. However, more and more workers are voluntarily giving up on this idea.
It is a remarkable development: While there has been more and more talk about how automation kills jobs or at least reduces the number of tasks, the share of people working overtime remains high. Reducing work time is just not compatible with hustle culture.
This, however, creates problems for women. For the majority of women, family and babies play a vital role in their lives — while still enjoying their professional endeavors. But instead of changing organizations from the inside in a way that allows more flexibility, the opposite happens. Regardless of the new opportunities that allow work from home in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Availability, digital visibility and dedication matter even if you are not physically present in your workplace.
Young, ambitious women are diving into this dynamic and work overtime. This can make sense on an individual level — the thirst to learn and create can indeed be stimulating. In many places, however, it sends a clear message: if you want to survive here, you have to obey the rules — and that includes the expectations to work overtime.
First studies show that this is what is holding back women in their careers. It is not that they are less qualified or lack experienced — it is the importance of overtime that works as a substitute hierarchy in many organizations. The more presence you show, the more you’ll progress. This presentialism neglects that people not only have to juggle care work, but that they are multi-layered beings with various interests outside of the office.
Women can achieve anything — if they behave like career-seeking men and thus postpone or even ignore the question of children. A young mother recently told me how her job at a large Berlin e-commerce company was cancelled while she was on maternal leave. Another explained that her supervisor at an accounting firm had recommended that she should wait with her desire to have children if she wanted her job to exist in the future. The Covid-19 pandemic has made matters worse as nobody knows when childcare will be reliable again.
This is not a problem for women who do not want to have children and simply seek to find happiness in their career. For the rest, who might worry that it might be “too late” at some point, hustle culture is increasingly becoming a problem. It increases the risk that women lose access to and knowledge about the industries that shape the future. This should concern companies too, as demographic change will massively intensify the shortage of skilled workers in many sectors. Many baby boomers will retire in the next 10 years. It is questionable whether it will be possible to afford a working environment that sanctions families in the long term.
The problem does not only affect women. Increasing pressure is also a problem for men. In its health report, the German health insurance company Techniker Krankenkasse publishes figures on sick days due to depression — Germany reached a new high in 2019. The hype about mindfulness and meditation apps do not help when the rest of your life is chaotic.
I understand that people take refuge in work. The world is an insecure place, the big questions about our existence are answered by fewer and fewer people through religion and especially in the big cities, loneliness has turned into a severe problem — there have never been so many single households as today. A good job at best manages to provide motivation, joy as well as a great sense of community and collegiality. These companies exist. Often, however, they are only a substitute for the lack of sense many seem to experience.
But not every company has a purpose. If one were to answer quite honestly whether many companies create a “meaningful” or “world-changing” product, one would quickly realize that this is not the case. And that is okay. Not every company has to function like a Silicon Valley start-up and create the competitive environment to promote creativity and innovation. Why pretend to be like that, when the humble truth is that most jobs just pay the bills? Why is the ordinary so hard to accept?
Sometimes when I contemplate work environments with my female friends, we wonder how close our present now looks to the future we imagined 10 years ago. It is true — there are more opportunities, our generation genuinely has a more nuanced understanding of women’s interests. However, sacrificing private life for the desire to find fulfillment and purpose professionally eventually didn’t turn out to be what many originally had planned for themselves. We should have have known that following a path designed for men would hardly ever fit most women.
However, things don’t seem to change any time soon. There are various reasons for this:
- People are drawn to hierarchies for orientation and understanding of self, so they will hold on to them
- With religion losing ground, there is little spiritual guidance to offer attractive alternative sources of purpose
- The recession will cost jobs and cut budgets — and the battle for the jobs will require extreme dedication, especially among low-income households
It will take time to create a more flexible and humane work life — and it will require to stop believing in cheap promises of purpose and meaning. Many jobs are good enough — even if they doesn’t inspire an entire generation.