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Less work, more life: tackling the mid-30s blues

Written by Anna Brech

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Like many other people my age, I was taught to relentlessly strive for success at work. Go higher, get better, achieve more. Reach for the top and don’t stop ’til you get there. It’s an empowering message and one that I seized upon straight out of Uni. I got my head down and poured everything into my shiny new career. Late hours and weekend shifts were part of the drill. So was a three-hour daily commute. It’s only when I came up for air in my 30s that I paused to think: is this even what I want?

I’m not alone in questioning the status quo. Research shows Brits typically start hating their jobs over the age of 35, with one in six people feeling unhappy at work. We put in more overtime than ever before (often unpaid), but our career satisfaction simultaneously nosedives to an all-time low. Why would we invest so much in something that makes us miserable? And how has the promise of a golden future fallen this far short of our expectations?

Maybe it’s time to re-frame the price we pay for a career. We take a closer look at a revolutionary movement that is shaping news way of working, with fresh ideas that break free from the rat race norm…

Embrace the medium chill

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A recent study found that the average UK worker does not feel rich until they earn at least £370,000 a year. Perhaps this is the banker’s burn-and-bust dream; working 80-hour weeks to retire at 45 for the “big chill”.

In which case, we say “the medium chill” might be a better way forward. This revolutionary concept was first aired in 2011 by writer David Roberts, in a viral article for Grist.

What does it mean? Deliberately keeping your career in low gear, and turning down opportunities for promotion and bigger paychecks, in order to have more space to live.

Read more: This woman quit her high-flying job to live and work in a van

“If we wanted, we could both do the ‘next thing’ on our respective career paths,” Roberts says, writing about he and his wife’s medium chill vision. “She could move to a bigger company. I could freelance more, angle to write for a bigger publications, write a book, hire a publicist, whatever. We could try to make more money. Then we could fix the water pressure in our shower, redo the back patio, get a second car, or hell, buy a bigger house closer in to town. All that stuff people with more money than us do.”

But, he says,  “Fact is, we just don’t want to work that hard! We already work harder than we feel like working… We like going to the park and visits with friends and low-key vacations and generally relaxing. Going further down our respective career paths would likely mean more work, greater responsibilities, higher stress, and less time to lay around the living room.”

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As Roberts points out, “There will always be a More and Better just beyond our reach, no matter how high we climb”. Instead, he’s made a trade-off for a better life in the now.

The medium chill might seem non-ambitious at first. But in an age where we’re drilled to grab prizes wherever we can get them, it’s brilliantly subversive. Who says you have to accept a promotion or strive for more, more, more? Why not just take what you have? Your life won’t be perfect but you’ll be 100% less stressed. And crucially, your job will no longer have the power to govern what you do.

Say no to overtime

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How often do you work late? Britain is home to a particularly unhealthy culture of overtime, with the average employee putting in 68 days a year of additional unpaid hours.

Some of these will be actual work. Some of them will be staring blankly at the computer. Some will be simply waiting around so you’re not the first person to leave (even though it’s gone 6pm). If you want a sunnier career, it’s vital you say no to this insidious way of working.

Read more: How being single can enrich your life

Look at the Danes, who work an average of 33 hours a week and regularly rank as one of the happiest nations on earth.

“Danes don’t do presenteeism and staying late is more likely to earn you a lecture on inefficiency and time management than a pat on the back,” writer Helen Russell, an honorary Dane, tells Stylist.

Hours typically run from 8am-4pm, and as one employee remarks, “come Cinderella hour – home time – everyone from the receptionist to the CEO goes. We’re trusted to do a good job; do our work; then leave.”

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This contrasts to London, where says Russell, “working long hours was considered a badge of honour and I knew one boss who did a victory lap of the building at 6.30pm every day to check who was still at their desks – promoting them accordingly.  Overtime was a sign of commitment: of dedication. Or, it now emerges, stupidity.”

Working overtime is not only stressful, it’s counterproductive: studies show happy employees are significantly more effective than their miserable, overworked colleagues. Make a resolution from today: no more overtime. Ever.

Ditch office protocol

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Tired old office protocol is to blame for an ocean-load of workplace sweat and tears. It’s not only annoying for employees to keep to the clock, fill out sick forms and request holidays – it’s extra hassle for overloaded bosses, too.

We’re not in playschool here. Why not trust that everyone can do their jobs well, and let them turn up when they want? Of course, this won’t work for some vocations (think medicine and education), but a growing number of innovative companies are seeing the light on this point.

Read more: The one travel talent of people in their 30s

“For businesses that thrive on formality, rules and set-in-stone processes, allowing staff to set their own holiday entitlement is probably a bit like allowing the lunatics to run the asylum,” says Jenny Biggam, owner of London-based media agency, the7stars.

“But when we launched the7stars, we deliberately set out to do things differently. The bureaucracy around holiday forms and seeking approval was one of the first things to go. We extend trust and flexibility by allowing team members to work hours which suit them. The media industry is not a 9-5 environment so as long as our colleagues get the job done, they can work from home or come into the office at 6am if they choose.

“In all that time we’ve not had one single case of people abusing the system,” Biggam notes. “In fact we’ve discovered that if you trust the people you work with to behave like grown-ups, they generally do.”

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Alisa Murphy, founder of cleantech comms agency Life Size, has a similar system of agile working in place for her team.

“Everyone in my team needs to be in the office for meetings but at all other times we’re free to work from home or a cafe, or at unusual times,” she says. “We also no longer track holiday days. We found it was important not to ask people to give details of where they were or why, because the whole point is that it’s up to you.”

This type of flexibility and trust is key to a balanced, more sustainable working culture. Seek out the companies leading the way.

Become a digital nomad

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With flexi and remote working on the rise, the time is nigh for digital nomads. Working from a hammock in Bali is the dream – but the reality is often more complex, and it takes careful handling to work well.

Read more: sex and sleep are the two keys to happiness

“Being constantly on the move can ruin anyone’s focus, rhythm, and pace, but I’ve discovered that it can be easily solved by doing slow travel and finding the right balance to how you do your workflow,” says Aileen Adalid, who quit her job at Deutsche Bank to travel the world. She now works around four hours a day on various online ventures that have allowed her the freedom to be nomadic.

“Always think long-term,” she tells Business Insider. “Sure, it’s fine to take it easy at the start as you get skills and do temporary work and projects, like volunteering, but at the very core, it’s still best to work your way towards a grand goal that will give you a more stable remote profession.”

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Organisations such as Remote Year and Unsettled are propelling digital nomads into the mainstream, making remote working more than just a passing whim for the footloose and fancy-free.

“There is a stereotype that the digital nomad lifestyle is limited to young, single people looking to live out an adventure for a couple of years before settling back into ‘normal’ life,” says William Duran, the founder of Destination Dev, a coding bootcamp that gives people an in-demand skill they can travel with.

“But, the world is changing rapidly,” he tells Forbes. “There are more and more communities forming to accommodate this lifestyle, as well as remote jobs, easier and cheaper flights, and shared housing options across different regions of the world. I predict that in the near future, living in a fully remote world will be the new ‘normal’. The digital nomad lifestyle won’t just be for people in their 20s but will also be accessible to all.”

Photos: Shutterstock

 


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