I worked very hard at school. I went to a university that made you write two essays a week. I started working right away when I graduated in 2010. I didn’t take a gap year; in the immediate aftermath of a global economic meltdown, it seemed too luxurious. I haven’t taken more than a month off work in the decade since. Why? Was it ambition – that nagging feeling in the bottomless pit behind my stomach that I have not been doing enough to progress in either my personal or professional life?
Ambition is not the same as aspiration, which is the hope that you might achieve something. Ambition is acting on that hankering, deploying your determination to achieve it. In one way or another, I feel that ambition – both being told to be ambitious by teachers and family members and desperately trying to summon it when all I’ve wanted to do is relax – has defined my entire life. Perhaps it is a survival instinct (particularly if you don’t have the safety net of family wealth), something ancient within us which drives us to work ever harder in order to achieve the material success required to have a comfortable life. In prehistoric times, that material success would, I guess, have meant getting up and going out to hunt and gather enough animal flesh and firewood to stay alive. Until recently, it seemed to be working as many hours as you could possibly manage and having approximately three side hustles.
My generation – millennials – has long had a complex relationship with ambition. We were born in the late ’80s and early ’90s, a time when Conservative and New Labour politicians were telling people that individuals who worked hard could achieve anything regardless of their background, that “we were all middle class now”. We went to university in record numbers, paying more for the privilege than previous generations. Then we entered our 20s just as the global economy collapsed around us, meaning that there were fewer jobs and they were lower paid, and that house prices rose exponentially beyond earnings. The Conservative government started gaslighting us, talking about “strivers and shirkers” as though race, gender and the economic class you’re born into don’t determine social mobility, and cutting back state welfare spending under austerity.
It can be no coincidence, then, that we not only bought into but perpetuated a culture which glorified overwork. Work was no longer something we did out of necessity, to make money and buy essentials. An almost mystical honour was bestowed upon it. All around me I watched my peers electing to take on unnecessary work at night, at the weekend and post it on social media. It was expected that you would do this, that you would hustle. Maybe, just maybe, if we were ambitious enough, determined enough and hardworking enough we could overcome the odds, get a job, buy a house and have an alright life.
None of this made us particularly happy. Throughout the 2010s, study after study found that we were “lonely, anxious and depressed”. In 2017, one particular piece of research found that British millennials had “the second worst mental health in the world”, with only Japan reporting higher levels of stress and anxiety. Against a backdrop of financial uncertainty and unaffordable housing, our relationship with ambition became increasingly toxic. Workaholism became an addiction that society not only approved of but actively encouraged. For the vast majority, this did not pay off. Homes did not magically become more affordable. In fact, they kept getting more expensive, rising by 33% over the decade. They were exceeded by the cost of living, though, which went up faster. Well-paid jobs in desirable industries did not suddenly appear. As the Resolution Foundation reported in 2019, young people’s pay and job prospects had been permanently “scarred” by the 2008 crash.
And then 2020 happened. A global pandemic caused a period of economic downturn. The very concept of a career trajectory was challenged as jobs in certain industries quite literally disappeared into the ether. Once again, younger generations (now known as the class of 2020) and, in particular, young women, were most impacted financially. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), redundancies were at their highest level since 2009 in the three months to August 2020, and research from the Resolution Foundation found that young people and those from ethnic minorities were more likely to be made redundant after furlough.
I’d be lying if I told you I haven’t questioned my own relationship with “hard work” during this period. It would be disingenuous of me to say that I found it as easy to get up in the morning, to write articles as the sun comes up, as I used to. My ambition, once endlessly vital, has begun to feel like trying to fill a bath without a plug.
Personal ambition is at once ubiquitous and elusive. If you could bottle it, I’m sure someone would sell it to be injected. The notion of a meritocracy – a society in which individual hard work could overcome global economic forces – has been tested to its limit this year. Surely nobody would think that ambition to succeed alone could get us out of this one. If work had become the altar at which so many of us worshipped, would we finally realise that we had invested in a false god who, far from being benevolent, didn’t really care about us at all?
No, says 25-year-old Billie, an SEO account manager from Sheffield who sits on the cusp of being a millennial and a member of Generation Z. During the first lockdown she looked on as many of her friends were furloughed and made redundant. Her job was safe but there and then she made a commitment to be more ambitious, to work even harder.
“I signed up for every webinar going, volunteered to speak at conferences, mentor others and write for industry leaders,” she tells me. “I also launched a blog and online store selling handmade jewellery and home decorations. I constantly tested my skills and improved my skills, so that I would be the perfect candidate for any employer.”
At a time when work has been exposed as fragile, no longer the finite thing out of which we thought we could conjure stability by pouring in all our time and energy, Billie has decided to invest further.
“Work has become more important to me, I see more value in being employed than I ever have,” she explains. “I feel lucky to still have a job for a company that is thriving. Now, I want to be indispensable and become a leader in my industry. All of the work I’ve put in over the last six months hasn’t gone to waste and has made me so much better at what I do.”
She has become more determined and, crucially, more “competitive”. Far from feeling comforting, though, Billie also describes ambition as the twin of disquiet. “Ambition, to me, feels like anxiety that I’m not doing enough and excitement about doing more,” she reflects. “I feel like I’m not where I’m supposed to be yet but really excited about getting there. I think it’s hard to not be ambitious these days as social media is full of success stories that make you feel bad for not being rich by 24.”
Similarly, 30-year-old Micaela, a wedding photographer from the southeast, feels more ambitious than ever. Ambition, she says, is her “default state”. It’s the daily realisation of a “gap” between where she is currently in her life and where she could be, and the “excitement of filling that gap” through her actions.
Micaela reflects that her ambition probably stems from the fact that she was “raised by a single mother” who she watched work very, very hard to hold everything together. “I was brought up to believe that if you want something, the only person stopping you from having it is yourself,” she says. “I have always been determined and written lists of goals since I was about 10 years old.” However, Micaela is quick to note that the ends of her ambition are actually less important than the means. “I don’t mind if I don’t necessarily achieve my goals,” she tells me, “but I wouldn’t want to forgo my ambition – my drive.”
The pandemic paused wedding ceremonies so Micaela’s work did effectively dry up. Faced with the reality of losing her income, she set up digital aspects to her business: an online photography course and a gift boxing business. She also found solace in having more time to throw at her work. “The pandemic actually gave me permission to justify working so much,” she explains. “It was fine to stay at home and work on my ideas. I used it as fuel to work harder, to be more strategic. I think I’ve been able to achieve more because I haven’t gone on holiday and my partner and I are shielding so we haven’t really been socialising.”
Turning in on ourselves and our own capacity to succeed is not without consequence. The indomitable human drive for power, for influence, for wealth – for what Sheri Johnson, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, calls “a foothold in the social hierarchy” – is nothing new. However, she notes, there is always a “psychological blowback” for investing heavily in pursuit of these things. At its most extreme, it can be an indicator of narcissism but, more commonly, it is linked to poor mental health.
“People who put their value on a set of goals related to attaining power — and then experience a profound sense of subordination and not making it to those goals — are at high risk for anxiety and depression,” she notes. There cannot be a more important time to consider this than now, when the economic odds of achieving success as we conventionally configure it – power at work and money in the bank – are quite literally stacked against you.
We know from large-scale attitude polling that millennials became more individualistic in the early 2010s, mostly out of necessity. I watched the aftermath of the 2009 economic crisis turn my peers against one another. I know people who have been bought homes by their parents and are too afraid to admit to it in case it changes how those who can’t afford to buy feel about them. It also turned us against ourselves. I have close friends who work so hard that they can barely function socially.
For women in particular, individual ambition has become toxic in recent years. We’ve been sold girlboss culture by companies which benefit from encouraging us to overlook the fact that gender inequality at work is still underpinned by structural problems such as sexism and the cost of childcare which, in reality, we cannot overcome on our own.
Rethinking Poverty is an organisation dedicated to the memory of social reformer Beatrice Webb. They have asked whether individualism can survive the coronavirus crisis. They think we need to challenge the idea that individual actions can be more powerful than working together. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that those with inherited wealth are more secure in a downturn; homeowners are more likely to have savings than renters, for example. Money makes money, debt begets debt. The only thing hard work can ever truly guarantee is that you will end up working more unpaid overtime. In a crisis, even the most successful find themselves facing redundancy, uncertainty and insecurity. This year has also forced us to confront the structural nature of inequality, of who is more likely to become a success. The protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd forced a long-overdue conversation about racial inequity, for instance. The ripple effect of that is still, rightly, being felt.
So perhaps there is a message for us here, in the last days of 2020: that if we realign our ambition so that it could benefit society as a whole, so it could work for the communities we inhabit and not just for ourselves, then maybe we might be onto something. What’s more, we might be in a better position the next time the shit well and truly hits the fan.
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