I often dream about what I would do with a year without responsibilities in my thirties, should I decide not to have children. I think I would like to spend it travelling around different parts of the world, walking under foreign suns, my skin darkening like tea left stewing in a mug: gradually, and then all at once. I’d like to lie tent-less under Bedouin stars, and sleep swaddled in multiple coats in the Arctic. Occasionally, however, these daydreams grind to a halt. I reflect on how I will be perceived for taking a year out of work to do anything except raise a child. Selfish, lazy, workshy – I’d epitomise my generation in the eye of boomers.
I was reminded of boomers’ attitude towards career breaks this week. First of all, it was reported that Monzo is offering all employees a paid three-month sabbatical (after they’ve worked at the company for four years). Then the chief-executive of Co-op Food, Jo Whitfield, announced yesterday (10 February) that she is taking four months out to help her sons with their GCSEs and A-Levels. The comments below articles about the two moves are scathing. “Pathetic!” was the adjective most used to describe Whitfield’s decision in comments on the article in the Times. Regarding Monzo’s decision, one Times reader complained of “millennials” and “lazy muppets that can’t interact in a work environment because they feel special”. Those who take take leave, even if unpaid, for reasons other than a newborn baby are harshly judged (as are those who take parental leave, too).
Most of all, the distaste for career breaks relies on an insidious assumption I often hear repeated by older generations: that we should fit life around work rather than work around life, and that we live to work, rather than the other way round. I don’t usually favour conspiracies claiming “Big Business” and “The Man” have hypnotised us into submission, but isn’t there something striking about the fact we use the term work-life balance rather than life-work balance? Even when we talk about balance, work comes first. But as we lie on our deathbeds, will memories of clearing our Outlook inboxes really be the ones that first come to mind, rather than those of holding loved ones so tightly we might snap their spines, or the sunsets we saw in places far from home?
Career breaks just make mathematical sense for my generation. First of all, we will be working well into our seventies without a break; we have no hope of an early retirement, unlike previous generations. And then there’s the fact that companies offer perks such as sabbaticals and a four-day week because it’s a sellers’ market; it’s hard to retain employees these days. When you consider that it usually takes far more than three months to recruit and train new employees (never mind the month or two that’s lost during the free-for-all that is “notice periods”), it makes sense to spend three months’ salary on a perk to keep someone in their role and reduce turnover. It’s funny how lot of older generations act as though a career break transgresses the fundamental conclusions of Adam Smith, when it is in fact the inevitable result of supply and demand.
Perhaps the only redeeming quality of the pandemic and the resultant move towards remote working is our prioritisation of productivity over being plugged in at all hours. More people understand that “flexible working” isn’t just left-wing speak for “lower standards”. Monzo won’t be the last company to give its employees career breaks, much as it might dismay many boomers.