Tribal Workers 

Today's generation of high-earning professionals maintain that their personal 
fulfillment comes from their jobs and the hours they work. They should grow 
up, says Thomas Barlow. 

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 


A friend of mine recently met a young American woman who was studying on a 
Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford. She already had two degrees from top US 
universities, had worked as a lawyer and as a social worker in the US, and 
somewhere along the way had acquired a black belt in kung fu. Now, however, 
her course at Oxford was coming to an end and she was thoroughly angst-ridden 
about what to do next. 

Her problem was no ordinary one. 

She couldn't decide whether she should make a lot of money as a corporate 
lawyer/management consultant, devote herself to charity work helping battered 
wives in disadvantaged Communities, or go to Hollywood to work as a stunt 
double in kung fu films. What most struck my friend was not the disparity of 
this woman's choices, but the earnestness and bad grace with which she 
ruminated on them. It was almost as though she begrudged her own talents, 
Opportunities and freedom - as though the world had treated her unkindly by 
forcing her to make such a hard choice. 

Her case is symptomatic of our times. In recent years, there has grown up a 
culture of discontent among the highly educated young something that seems to 
flare up, especially, when people reach their late 20s and early 30s. It 
arises not from frustration caused by lack of opportunity, as may have been 
true in the past, but from an excess of possibilities. 

Most theories of adult developmental psychology have a special category for 
those in their late 20s and early 30s. 

Whereas the early to mid-20s are seen as a time to establish one's mode of 
living, the late 20s to early 30s are often considered a period of 
reappraisal. In a society where people marry and have children young, where 
financial burdens accumulate early, and where job markets are inflexible, such 
appraisals may not last long. But when people manage to remain free of 
financial or family burdens, and where the perceived opportunities for 
alternative careers are many, the reappraisal is likely to be strong. 

Among no social group is this more true than the modern, International, 
professional elite: that tribe of young bankers, lawyers, consultants and 
managers for whom financial, familial, personal, corporate and (increasingly) 
national ties have become irrelevant. Often they grew up in one country, were 
educated in another, and are now working in a third. 

They are independent, well paid, and enriched by experiences that many of 
their parents could only dream of. Yet, by their late 20s, many carry a sense 
of disappointment: that for all their opportunities, freedoms and 
achievements, life has not delivered quite what they had hoped. At the heart 
of this disillusionment lies a new attitude towards work. 

The idea has grown up, in recent years, that work should not be just a means 
to an end a way to make money, support a family, or gain social prestige but 
should provide a rich and fulfilling experience in and of itself. Jobs are no 
longer just jobs; they are lifestyle options. Recruiters at financial 
companies, consultancies and law firms have promoted this conception of work. 
Job advertisements promise challenge, wide experiences, opportunities for 
travel and relentless personal development. 

Michael is a 33-year-old management consultant who has bought into this vision 
of late-20th century work. Intelligent and well-educated - with three degrees, 
including a doctorate - he works in Munich, and has a "stable, long-distance 
relationship" with a woman living in California. He takes 140 flights a year 
and works an average of 80 hours a week. Some weeks he works more than 100 

When asked if he likes his job, he will say: "I enjoy what I'm doing in terms 
of the intellectual challenges." Although he earns a lot, he doesn't spend 
much. He rents a small apartment, though he is rarely there, and has 
accumulated very few possessions. He justifies the long hours not in terms of 
wealth-acquisition, but solely as part of a "learning experience". 

This attitude to work has several interesting implications, mostly to do with 
the shifting balance between work and non-work, employment and leisure. 
Because fulfilling and engrossing work - the sort that is thought to provide 
the most intense learning experience - often requires long hours or captivates 
the imagination for long periods of time, it is easy to slip into the idea 
that the converse is also true: that just by working long hours, one is also 
engaging in fulfilling and engrossing work. This leads to the popular fallacy 
that you can measure the value of your job (and, therefore, the amount you are 
learning from it) by the amount of time you spend on it. And, incidentally, 
when a premium is placed on learning rather than earning, people are 
particularly susceptible to this form of self-deceit. 

Thus, whereas in the past, when people in their 20s or 30s spoke disparagingly 
about nine-to-five jobs it was invariably because they were seen as too 
routine, too unimaginative, or too bourgeois. Now, it is simply because they 
don't contain enough hours. 

Young professionals have not suddenly developed a distaste for leisure, but 
they have solidly bought into the belief that a 45-hour week necessarily 
signifies an unfulfilling job. Jane, a 29-year-old corporate lawyer who works 
in the City of London, tells a story about working on a deal with another 
lawyer, a young man in his early 30s. At about 3am, he leant over the 
boardroom desk and said: "Isn't this great? This is when I really love my 
job." What most struck her about the remark was that the work was irrelevant 
(she says it was actually rather boring); her colleague simply liked the idea 
of working late. "It's as though he was validated, or making his life 
important by this," she says. 

Unfortunately, when people can convince themselves that all they need do in 
order to lead fulfilled and happy lives is to work long hours, they can 
quickly start to lose reasons for their existence. As they start to think of 
their employment as a lifestyle, fulfilling and rewarding of itself - and in 
which the reward is proportional to hours worked - people rapidly begin to 
substitute work for other aspects of their lives. 

Michael, the management consultant, is a good example of this phenomenon. He 
is prepared to trade (his word) not just goods and time for the experience 
afforded by his work, but also a substantial measure of commitment in his 
personal relationships. In a few months, he is being transferred to San 
Francisco, where he will move in with his girlfriend. But he's not sure that 
living the same house is actually going to change the amount of time he spends 
on his relationship. "Once I move over, my time involvement on my relationship 
will not change significantly. My job takes up most of my time and pretty much 
dominates what I do, when, where and how I do it," he says. Moreover, the 
reluctance to commit time to a relationship because they are learning so much, 
and having such an intense and fulfilling time at work is compounded, for some 
young professionals, by a reluctance to have a long-term relationship at all. 

Today, by the time someone reaches 30, they could easily have had three or 
four jobs in as many different cities - which is not, as it is often 
portrayed, a function of an insecure global job-market, but of choice. Robert 
is 30 years old. He has three degrees and has worked on three continents. He 
is currently working for the United Nations in Geneva. For him, the most 
significant deterrent when deciding whether to enter into a relationship is 
the likely transient nature of the rest of his life. "What is the point in 
investing all this emotional energy and exposing myself in a relationship, if 
I am leaving in two months, or if I do not know what I am doing next year?" he 

Such is the character of the modern, international professional, at least 
throughout his or her 20s. Spare time, goods and relationships, these are all 
willingly traded for the exigencies of work. Nothing is valued so highly as 
accumulated experience. Nothing is neglected so much as commitment. With this 
work ethic - or perhaps one should call it a "professional development ethic" -
 becoming so powerful, the globally mobile generation now in its late 20s and 
early 30s has garnered considerable professional success. At what point, 
though, does the experience-seeking end? 

Kathryn is a successful American academic, 29, who bucked the trend of her 
generation: she recently turned her life round for someone else. She moved to 
the UK, specifically, to be with a man, a decision that she says few of her 
contemporaries understood. "We're not meant to say: 'I made this decision for 
this person. Today, you're meant to do things for yourself. If you're willing 
to make sacrifices for others - especially if you're a woman - that's seen as 
a kind of weakness. I wonder, though, is doing things for yourself really 
empowerment, or is liberty a kind of trap?" she says. 

For many, it is a trap that is difficult to break out of, not least because 
they are so caught up in a culture of professional development. And spoilt for 
choice, some like the American Rhodes Scholar no doubt become paralysed by 
their opportunities, unable to do much else in their lives, because they are 
so determined not to let a single one of their chances slip. If that means 
minimal personal commitments well into their 30s, so be it. "Loneliness is 
better than boredom" is Jane's philosophy. 

And, although she knows "a lot of professional single women who would give it 
all up if they met a rich man to marry", she remains far more concerned 
herself about finding fulfillment at work. "I am constantly questioning 
whether I am doing the right thing here," she says. "There's an eternal search 
for a more challenging and satisfying option, a better lifestyle. You always 
feel you're not doing the right thing always feel as if you should be striving 
for another goal," she says. 

Jane, Michael, Robert and Kathryn grew up as part of a generation with fewer 
social constraints determining their futures than has been true for probably 
any other generation in history. They were taught at school that when they 
grew up they could "do anything", "be anything". It was an idea that was 
reinforced by popular culture, in films, books and television. 

The notion that one can do anything is clearly liberating. But life without 
constraints has also proved a recipe for endless searching, endless 
questioning of aspirations. It has made this generation obsessed with self-
development and determined, for as long as possible, to minimise personal 
commitments in order to maximise the options open to them. One might see this 
as a sign of extended adolescence. 

Eventually, they will be forced to realise that living is as much about 
closing possibilities as it is about creating them.