Editor’s Letter: When work just isn’t working

Editor’s Letter: When work just isn’t working

We spoke with young Torontonians who are de-prioritizing their careers in favour of less stressful, more balanced lives

Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth

Let’s begin with an awkward truth: millennial and Gen-Z workers are less industrious than the boomers who raised them. Here’s another: their careers aren’t a defining part of their identities; they’re a means to finance their lifestyles. We could argue about the outliers—those hard-working 20- or 30-somethings you know—but studies confirm the stereotype. Before you reach for the pitchfork, here’s a third truth: these young workers may be on to something.

Sometime in the last 10 years, a silent revolution occurred in Canada: millennials overtook boomers as the largest cohort in the workforce. No one really noticed at the time, but the change ought to have been blasted over loudspeakers. Why? One group was raised on Leave It to Beaver; the other grew up watching The Simpsons.

That stark difference has huge implications for the future of work and the Canadian economy. Just compare the paternal archetypes: Ward Cleaver, briefcase in hand, smile on face, is out the door at dawn and back by dinner, spewing aphorisms about the value of hard work. Homer Simpson, by contrast, resents his meaningless job pushing buttons at the nuclear plant and the smirking tyrant who owns it.

Today in Toronto, young people face economic circumstances that would be unrecognizable to their parents at the same age. The cost of living is exorbitant. Interest rates are high. A recession lurks. The cookie-cutter home Mom and Dad bought for peanuts way back when goes for a million dollars today. To top off all that stress, we’ve just lived through a pandemic experts say won’t be our last, climate change and AI pose existential threats to humanity, and two wars risk drawing major powers into irreversible global conflict.

Given this frightful context, younger generations are asking themselves novel, entirely reasonable questions about work. Should I grind myself to a fine dust for my employer, who cares little about me? Should I push my stress levels beyond my ability to cope? Should I chase some arbitrary salary when most of it goes out the door to my landlord, mortgage lender or local grocery magnate? For our package on the new labour force, “Work Less, Live More,” we spoke to many of those workers, who responded en masse with a very Gen-Z answer: nah.

They’re not lazy. Their choice is both savvy and strategic. They want to work but maybe a little less; they want a good salary but will settle for just enough to get by; they want to be engaged by their job but not overwhelmed. Being underemployed used to mean failure. Today, when it’s intentional, it’s a triumph of work-life balance.

Eunice Bae is a prime example of this attitude. She gave up a $90,000 salary at a crypto start-up to become a part-time bookkeeper and retail worker. “I love the balance I’ve found. I still work hard, but the work itself isn’t overly challenging,” she says. “I don’t manage anyone. I don’t have to constantly problem-solve. I don’t bring my work home with me, and I never work late. Even though I’m now making $42,000 a year—less than half of what I made at the start-up—I’m so much happier.” Not everyone can afford such a choice, but for those who can, why not?

I can feel the generational eye roll. The Protestant work ethic turned Canada into an economic engine. Boomers may be aghast, but their outrage is misplaced. Young workers didn’t create the affordability gap, the climate crisis or the gig economy. Who did? Take one guess.