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27 May 2023

When did a decent life become out of reach of the unambitious?

Ambition used to be a dirty word, but now no one can afford not to be relentless about their career.

By Marie Le Conte

What does it mean to be ambitious? I ask because I’m not sure any more. It should be straightforward but it isn’t. Is ambition a good or a bad thing?

It used to be unseemly to be ambitious. It was unchic, vulgar; it said a lot about someone, not in a complimentary way. Thirst for power and wealth had a certain stench. You could smell it on people, even when they tried to hide it. It hung around them and made them seem megalomaniacal, or fundamentally empty inside, or both.

Ambition felt gauche because of what it implied. Someone could get a decent place, have a decent life and go on decent holidays without having an extravagant job. What did it say about them that they wanted more, had a hunger that exceeded those perfectly acceptable standards? Did they want to feel superior to others or did they feel superior already? Neither option seemed great.

Industries where widespread ambition was a given usually had a bad reputation. I should know, I’m a journalist. We’re not exactly beloved. Some years ago I had a job where everyone assumed I wanted to grind and get ahead. They advised me to keep my head down, work long hours and never complain, and soon enough I’d get a shiny job title and even shinier salary.

It didn’t work out between us; I didn’t want to do any of those things. All I wanted was to have a nice enough one-bed flat and the occasional Ryanair holiday, and to have a good time. Getting to the office early and leaving late didn’t match my vision of fun at all, so I left.

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After a few years of working moderately hard and complaining frequently, I got what I wanted. I live in a place large enough that I can cook fresh salmon without making my every possession smell of fresh salmon. I can stay in Airbnbs in southern Europe that do not obviously look like someone was once murdered there. I didn’t ask for much and lo, I received.

I just worry about how long it’ll last. That’s why I asked about ambition: what does it mean to not be especially ambitious if you live in a world where the treadmill keeps getting faster?

[See also: After two years of therapy I have decided that where I am is good enough]

There was a point in time, not too long ago, when having modest expectations meant that you could afford not to be relentless about your career. You had your work and your life and the former supported the latter well enough, and all was well. Your house probably wasn’t a mansion and your clothes definitely weren’t designer but these things weren’t for everyone anyway, right? That felt like an acceptable deal to make.

What happens when it’s not those luxuries out of your reach but basics, though? Because that’s the country we live in now. To have a decent life in Britain, you now need to earn the sort of money that would once have had you earmarked as a try-hard.

I can afford my one-bed flat and my holidays by solely buying clothes and books in charity shops, and I earn more than the median London wage, which is the highest in the UK. Food is still getting more expensive, and so is housing. I do not currently have a child but would like one at some point. Will this life really remain sustainable for the foreseeable future? If not, what next? And what of the people whose industries pay less than mine?

I always thought ambition was a dirty word but it must surely become the norm in a world where staying still requires you to walk faster and faster. For those to whom hard work comes easy anyway this might be good news, or at least not bad news, but that’s not everyone.

Hustle culture may be appealing to some, dreaming of millions in a savings account, but a healthy society relies on people whose dreams are moderate in size. We are the ones who keep mid-range restaurants in business and go to cheap and cheerful cinemas with sticky carpets. We order the second coffees because we decided to linger and we aren’t bores incapable of talking about anything but our jobs.

Careerists may be the ones running things but we’re the ones keeping them quietly ticking along. We need each other, and it is unlikely that ambitious people would enjoy suddenly having to compete with everyone else. For us to cohabit peacefully, they should be left alone to do whatever it is they do in the office before 9am and after 7pm.

On which note – it’s now time for my 4pm bath, which feels like a fitting conclusion. I never was drawn to ambition because I never yearned for diamonds or jaunts to the Caribbean. All I want in this world is to have a mid-afternoon soak whenever I fancy it. Surely that cannot be too much to ask.

[See also: The death of workplace perks]

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