In the age of burnout, the collective conversation about work has switched from being about succeeding in our careers at all costs to one that prioritises balance and boundaries.
For my parents’ generation, and indeed even my older siblings’ generation, the epitome of middle-class success was not just having a liveable income, it was demonstrating career achievements that went beyond the average – senior positions, promotions, high-intensity workloads, businesses that dominated our time. These were all things that were posited as markers of success.
Not that long ago, we were in the cult of busyness, with people going to great lengths to express how busy they were, as though being stressed and time-poor were signals of importance and success. This was reinforced by workplaces rewarding employees who worked extra hours, logged on at the weekend, and put their work life ahead of their home life.
Fast forward to the post-pandemic world, and the shift has been seismic. Instead of work being the priority at all costs, we’re now openly exploring how to flip this rhetoric and instead place work alongside other key elements of a well-rounded life as one of many important factors that contribute to overall well-being.
Notably, there has also been a more interrogative approach to understanding work and its role in our lives, acknowledging that the capitalist grind that values human labour in terms of output over all else is not OK and calling out businesses and employers who prioritise profits over their employees.
First, we had ‘quiet quitting’. The movement kicked off in America and encouraged minimum and low-wage workers, who were unable to leave their jobs, to instead dial back their engagement to only their core responsibilities, letting go of overtime labour and going above and beyond where it wasn’t being rewarded with corresponding improvements to their pay or conditions.
Now, we have ‘bare minimum Mondays’ – an Aussie manager apparently introduced this concept to her team, encouraging them to ease into the work week by doing only the necessities on a Monday, not having any scheduled meetings, and encouraging a ‘less is more’ attitude.
Unsurprisingly, there was an immediate backlash when this story went public from a more ‘traditional’ type of employer, with claims that the concept is ‘lazy’ and ‘entitled’ behaviour from Gen Z employees.
I can see both sides of the coin here. It’s all well and good to encourage a more empathetic and relaxed approach to work for better staff well-being, but like most managers, I’ve also had the unpleasant experience of managing underperformers, and there’s always the risk that ‘bare minimum’ will be taken too literally.
However, the general assumption that Gen Z employees want to protect their mental health at work and have some balance is lazy, reductive and misses the point. In fact, it plays into the convenient narrative that employers want to promote – that working hard to the point of burnout is a sign of high performance and dedication, whereas creating balance and space in your work life is naive and immature.
What if, instead of seeing these trends as a sign of the younger generation’s failures, we see it as an opportunity to drastically reframe how we value human time as a society? I would much rather live in a world where our value and worth are based not only on our economic capacity and output but also on how we engage with our communities. Imagine if less time being stressed about work opened up the avenue for more people to volunteer, play sport, spend time with friends, make art, etc.
Yes, there are job requirements in any paid role that require certain outputs, and it’s not unreasonable for employers to expect those needs to be met. But in many industries, our work culture has swung way past the point of reasonable expectations and into the territory of work bleeding into life in a way that curtails the capacity and energy for people to do much else outside of their paid hours.
Maybe instead of rolling our eyes at Gen Z, we should take a step back and ask ourselves why we ascribe value and maturity to people who put paid work above all else to the detriment of their happiness and label the desire for balance and boundaries as entitled. There’s definitely immaturity at play here, just maybe not in the direction you assume.