Is Career Ambition Dead?

July 25, 2023
career ambition

Career ambition wasn’t born, it was created.

Celebrated economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that we’d all be working 15 hour weeks by now, thanks to technology. 

Then society and modern capitalism created a model that says ‘the more you work, the higher you rise’, despite the fact that there is extensive evidence that working longer hours actually makes us less productive. Second-wave feminism made it clear that women should settle for nothing less than a seat in the boardroom, which eventually came to mean juggling kids and the home as well as a career. 

Then in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, millennials became more panicked about financial security. Overworking became popular among this generation who felt like they needed to work long hours and start a side business to achieve some semblance of success in such a tough economic climate. For many, their side hustles negatively affected their mental and physical health, increased their stress, challenged their work-life balance, or even strained their personal relationships.

Against a backdrop of financial uncertainty and unaffordable housing, our relationship with ambition has become increasingly toxic. Workaholism is an addiction that society not only approved of but actively encouraged. For the vast majority, this did not pay off, and millennials took note.

Then came the pandemic…

Over the past two and a half years, many people have taken stock of how they spend their time, where they find meaning, their hopes for the future – and they’ve found work wanting. The very concept of a career trajectory has been challenged as jobs in certain industries quite literally disappeared into the ether. Dissatisfaction with rigid hierarchies, bad management, boundaries that flex only one way, has been mounting for decades. 

Research by the Families and Work Institute suggests that most people stop jostling for promotion at 35 years old, often coinciding with childcare responsibilities. But the recalibration we’re seeing now is more than this inevitable, individual drift – it appears to be a massive cultural U-turn.

The upheaval of 2020 not only revealed our jobs to be more flexible than many of us had been led to believe, but we were also reminded of the importance of health, hobbies and relationships. Our careers often seemed hollow by comparison.

The pandemic has given birth to a societal change seen only once in a generation. Hundreds of thousands have quit their jobs or shuffled to a less demanding role, with many putting more value on their mental wellbeing than career achievements.

…and now, Gen Z.

There is one powerful force hastening the end of ambition and the beginning of a new era of work: gen Z. Unlike older millennials who may have had a rosy view of work before being disappointed, ‘zoomers’ have only ever known stagnant wages, insecure contracts, sudden redundancies and crushing debt. Factor in the pandemic, the Ukraine war, the climate crisis, and you’ve got a recipe for a generation whose values are exceptionally different to those that came before them.

In Deloitte’s recent survey of more than 23,000 workers aged 18 to 38, work-life balance was found to be their top priority when choosing an employer, and 75% preferred remote or hybrid patterns. In fact, many gen Z employees will simply change jobs or not accept a position that doesn’t offer the flexibility they require. Their values are simply not aligned with hustle culture or the traditional career ambition model.

Dead, buried and hopefully never to be resurrected.

Career ambition as traditionally known is absolutely dead. In place of it, people want to genuinely connect with the work they do on a daily basis, be physically and mentally well, and have a good balance between their work life and home life. It’s a solid cultural change.

This cultural shift is even evident in pop culture. In just two years we’ve gone from celebrating hustle culture to a backlash ensuing after Kim Kardashian dared to declare that “nobody wants to work these days”. Even Beyoncé, a self-professed workaholic who has spoken of going without food, sleep and bodily relief so she can ‘slay all day’, is now singing on her latest album about quitting her job and building a new foundation around love, fun and rest.

Employers need to recognise and embrace this shift, or risk being the fossilised dinosaur in an evolved world. People of all generations now require a job that allows a good work-life balance, while challenging them to grow. If you’re interested in exploring what candidates in the market are needing, contact us for a no-obligation discussion today.


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