UUntil 2020, I lived by five-year plans. I set my career track when I was still a child, running through school to get to university, then working at university. I was often described as “driven” – approvingly by teachers and bosses, and disparagingly by ex-boyfriends who felt they got the raw end of the deal.
When I was 28, I started seeing a therapist to figure out how to function better. She and I discussed my career more than my childhood, my mental health, or my love life. I didn’t want a partner, I told her, because they would just be a distraction.
She might have challenged me if I had stopped seeing her because of the epidemic. By then I had been working independently for six months. During the lockdown, I worked all day, many days and many nights till dawn. At first there was a perverse comfort: I was still making progress, even though I was stuck in one place. Then, one September morning after another all-nighter, I suddenly, painfully stopped.
My burnout was particularly excruciating for being self-harmed; I felt bewildered and betrayed, as if my trusty North Star had let me down. Gradually, I began to question my ambitions: what was I looking for from work, and where could this feeling be best sourced?
On my 30th birthday, in March 2021, the version of me who organized my entire life around my career felt like a stranger. I was still productive, but no longer at the expense of my health, happiness or relationships. The fire that had fueled me for half my life seemed to go up in smoke—and for the first time, I was content to put it out.
It turns out I’m not alone. It’s been called the Age of Anti-Ambition: Over the past two and a half years, many people have found themselves lacking in how they spend their time, where they find meaning, their hopes for the future – and work.
Hundreds of thousands have left their jobs, many to take early retirement or live on savings, shrinking the UK labor force by an estimated 1 million workers. In the U.S., 2.8% of employers quit in May alone (though that’s balanced against “hires” of 4.3%)—down from last year’s peak of 3%. Meanwhile, those who cannot opt out of work altogether are less invested in it. In one survey, 37% of respondents said their work has become less important to them through the pandemic, with many citing burnout or a change in values.
Even in pop culture, this shift is evident. In just two years we’ve gone from celebrating “hustle culture” to reacting to Kim Kardashian daring to declare that “nobody wants to work these days.” Beyoncé – a self-professed workaholic, who has spoken of going without food, sleep and physical relief so she can “kill all day” – is now singing about quitting her job and building a “new foundation” around love on Break My Soul. , fun and relaxation.
For some of us, it amounts to a new identity. “I don’t have the title, the benefits package or the authority that I could have,” Rob Weatherhead told me, “but there’s no money in the world you can offer me to pursue them.”
For nearly half his life, Weatherhead, 40, has been climbing the ranks in advertising, all the way to director level. This meant long days, regular trips from her home in Bolton to Manchester and London, and periods away from her three young children.
At the time, he accepted it as the price of his ambition. “It was always about the next thing, whether it was a promotion or another opportunity,” he says. “When you’re in that world it’s hard to look beyond it.”
Weatherhead remembers leaving the London office late, led by a large pitch, to find about 20 people still at work. “They had commitments, kids, partners,” he says in disbelief. “I was like: What are you doing here at 11 o’clock at night?”
In an effort to control his time, Weatherhead quit his job in 2014 to become an independent consultant. But he remained at the beck and call of his clients. “I was still chasing… Anyway, I was chasing.” He sounds really at a loss. “Probably progress, in some form.”
It took a pandemic, and he lost all his contracts for eight weeks to recalibrate. He now works a three-minute walk from his home, runs to school every morning and learns jujitsu with his children, aged 10, eight and five. The younger two, he notes with obvious pride, don’t remember a time when he wasn’t there.
He has also started a liquor business with his friend. “But it’s just something we enjoy doing.” His past life now strikes him as strange. “For me — without sounding grandiose — it’s about looking ahead: In 20 years’ time, will I be happy with the decisions I’ve made? Will I still have a good relationship with my children?”
Research by America’s Institute on Families and Work suggests that most people stop jostling for promotions by age 35, often coinciding with childcare responsibilities. But the recalibration we’re seeing now is more than an inevitable, personal drift—it seems like a cultural U-turn.
Julia Hobsbawm, consultant and author of The Nowhere Office, calls it “the great reappraisal”: a massive reckoning that will shape the future of work. “It’s not so much that people are less ambitious, but that their ambitions are changing—first about career success, about work-life balance,” she says.
Dissatisfaction with modern work—rigid hierarchies, poor management, boundaries that flex only one way—had been growing for decades, Hobsbawm says. The upheaval of 2020 will not only reveal that our jobs are more flexible than many of us have been led to believe; We were also reminded of the importance of health, hobbies and relationships – our careers often seem empty in comparison. Now, says Hobsbawm, “there is a wider meaning of ‘carpe diem'”.
“No one can ever go back to what they were before, because we are all profoundly changed in one way or another,” she says. “What people want less now is pointless presentations, stress, toxic workplaces and commutes … People want autonomy and flexibility as much as they want promotions and professional careers, or more.”
For those climbing the corporate ladder, however, it can be a daunting climb.
Katie Mantwa George, 38, worked in recruitment for 15 years at companies such as Barclays, Credit Suisse, Rothschild and AIG. “It was fun,” she tells me. She enjoyed the travel, the camaraderie – even the pressure. “I was always fishing for the next promotion, really wanting to prove myself.”
George had good boundaries, creative outlets and strong relationships; But when I ask if she’s ever been burned, she’s clear. “Oh, sure.” She also felt the burden of representation. “Being one of the women of color in leadership at most of the companies I’ve worked for, this has often been said to me — and to be honest, it sucks. I want to make a difference, but it’s extra work.”
By 2020 George was working at Amazon, leading a team of around 40 people across 12 cities, and had well and truly embraced the financial volatility she was growing up with. “It made me feel like I made it,” she says.
But the corporate world was beginning to take its toll. “I got to the point where I couldn’t sleep – my heart was in overdrive,” George says. She went to see her doctor, who told her it was overworked and gave her a heart rate monitor to wear for three days.
This health scare prompted a life overhaul: she hired a coach, relocated to Cape Town with her job to be closer to family, and later took three months of unpaid leave. When it came time to return to the office, Katie’s team had evolved and she realized that he had too.
She quit last August, and has since pursued work that feels meaningful: she has written a children’s book about mixed race, advises on inclusive recruitment strategies, trains corporate types on empathic leadership, and teaches meditation – “to slow everyone down”. .
It’s not easy to turn down opportunities or adjust to a step-down in status and income. “But I feel so much more.” She doesn’t start work before 10 am or till 5 pm, does yoga daily and spends quality time with family. “Ambition means a bigger paycheck, a bigger brand, a more senior position … Now I actually want to go and watch the sunset.”
Ben Franklin, director of the Center for Progressive Policy, sees this daily. “In many sectors, people want to work flexibly, and employers are struggling to meet that demand,” he says. For Hobsbawm, despite the government’s insistence, he is also showing resistance to returning to office. “From Elon Musk to Jacob Rees-Mogg, managers who try to emphasize presentation seem anachronistic,” she says. “Activists are voting with their feet.”
A transition to hybrid work could see inequality worsen, however, warns Hobsbawm, with only in-demand talent able to dictate its terms. But there is a powerful force hastening the end of ambition and the dawn of a new era of work: Gen Z.
“Speaking of ambition,” Maeve says cheerfully, when I call her in the afternoon, “I just woke up.” The 19-year-old returned home to Saffron Walden, Essex, from Bristol University, where she is studying languages.
Unlike older millennials like me — who may have had a rosy view of work before becoming depressed — “zoomers” have never known stagnant wages, insecure contracts, sudden layoffs and crushing student loans.
Factor in the pandemic, the Ukraine war and the climate crisis, “and you almost believe that ambition can be your detriment, because there are so many things working against you”, says Mawe. “The world seems incredibly fickle – there’s this sense of: ‘I’ll just get there when I get there.'”
Maeve is passionate and principled: she doesn’t eat meat, buy new clothes or use social media, and she says she “can’t get enough” of learning about the world. If she had been born 10 years earlier, Maeve might have grown up a five-year-old planner like me. “I really value my degree; I’ve always worked hard,” she says. “But when you’re going to plan some huge structure … you think it’s going to collapse under you.”
It’s sad, Maeve agrees, but no wonder. Maeve has had a job since she was 13, but worries she will never earn enough. “A hardback book is 20 quid, a pint is a fiver – many pleasures in life are very expensive.”
Many Gen-Ers are well-versed in anti-capitalist ideology and broadcast their apathy, ambivalence or anger on social media. “I don’t want to rush,” TikToker said last year. “I want to live my life slowly, lie on a bed of moss with my lover, and enjoy the rest of my existence.”
Many Gen Zs feel the same way. In a recent Deloitte survey of more than 23,000 workers aged 18 to 38, work-life balance was their top priority when choosing an employer, with 75% preferring a remote or hybrid format.
This reflects what I repeated to myself in conversations last year: the goals that motivated me are now less important than having a “good life.” This meant revising my ambitions, from becoming a bestselling author by 32 (“Recently!”) to rekindling my love of writing.
Maeve also gained clarity. During the lockdown, she was studying for her A Levels. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard in my life. I didn’t see anyone. I felt bad,” she says. But she changed clothes for friends, played the violin by the hour and read a novel a week.
“The only way I could keep my ambitions was to measure them,” says Maeve. Now, she has only one: “this huge, huge, almost furious desire” – to be happy.
“There are a lot of things that people my age have to struggle with and deal with, but this is something that I think I can do for myself,” says Maeve. “People think that happiness is a privilege, or a byproduct of success—but it can also be a goal.”