May 29, 2024

The sitcom 30 Rock once featured a scene in which a middle-aged private investigator, played by Steve Buscemi, laughably goes undercover in a school, wearing a back-to-front baseball cap and carrying a skateboard. His greeting to students – “How do you do, fellow kids?” – has since become a classic meme, encapsulating cringey attempts by older people to “get down with da yoof”.

This meme comes to mind as I observe how millennials, entering their thirties, are trying (and usually failing) to relate to Gen Z, aged between 16 and 25. As an ageing millennial myself, I just can’t get my head around TikTok, the word “cheugy” and Billie Eilish. More importantly, I’ll have to come to terms with the fact that the next generation is more assertive and bolder than I’ll ever be.

A recent New York Times article went viral for suggesting millennial bosses are “scared” of their more junior workers, who demand “mental health days”, fewer hours and certain tasks to be delegated to senior staff. If millennial managers demur, their employees publicly shame them on social media. If that doesn’t work, they resign in spectacular fashion – filming it for all to see on TikTok.

The #quitmyjob trend is flourishing thanks to labour shortages in industries that are big employers of young people, such as hospitality. Such a hashtag would never have existed ten years ago, when I started work amid a paucity of decent jobs and a squeeze on pay.

Maybe #thankyousomuchboss would have been more apt. I remember being pathetically grateful for my first job, complete with trendy office perks like table football and free doughnuts. That’s why I spent months tolerating sexual bullying, mismanagement and presenteeism until it eventually broke me.

It took two years for me to fully re-enter the workplace and regain my trust in others. The whole experience left me with a deep mistrust of corporate culture, especially when it acts progressive, which might explain why I’m now a diehard freelancer. So, perhaps Gen Z has the right idea. Life is too short to put up with toxic behaviour, overwork and eating al desko. We millennials might wonder why we worked so hard in our twenties when there seems to be a more appealing alternative – not to work at all.

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The “anti work” movement has taken off during the pandemic, which has hastened an economic shift towards online “hustles” such as investing, selling goods or monetising services (including homemade porn on OnlyFans) rather than full-time jobs. Plus, governments have literally paid their citizens not to work – see the UK furlough scheme and US stimulus checks.

The Anti Work community on Reddit now boasts 1.1 million self-described “idlers”, while advocates of FIRE (financial independence, retire early) have also found a new audience. FIRE proposes that you cut spending so that you can invest the spare cash in low-cost exchange traded funds (ETFs), then use the proceeds to retire years before you ordinarily would. You also look for passive income from things like affiliate advertising on blogs or Airbnb.

So, can a work-free life… work? It’s not for everyone: let’s hope key workers don’t embrace it anytime soon. The FIRE movement sprang from the investing bull run of the 2010s, when you only had to look at a global ETF to make money. As inflation kicks in, markets may falter. That’s fine if you’re investing for the long-term, less so if the clock is ticking down to an imminent retirement date.

Many FIRE champions don’t seem to have “retired” in the way most of us would understand it. Instead, they move into furiously promoting their ebooks, podcasts, vlogs, and online courses – often on how to retire early. Also, passive income is anything but passive: think of the upkeep and financial admin attached to renting property, for example.

Most online influencers who shun traditional work are far more Stakhanovite than the 9-to-5 crowd. With online work, there’s no clocking off. Your boss is an inscrutable algorithm that rewards non-stop sensational content. And your followers? Well, they can be as demanding, bullying and intrusive as any bad employer.

Be careful what you wish for. Bella Hadid, one of the most successful supermodels on social media, recently confided to her followers about her regular “breakdowns and burnouts”. She’s far from the only influencer who has needed prolonged breaks from, well, influencing. But with a reported wealth of $25m, Ms Hadid could choose never to work another day in her life. Most young workers don’t have that privilege.

Don’t get me wrong: I love how FIRE and online hustling make us think more deeply about work today. We just need to ensure we’re not swapping one unhealthy, unsustainable way of life for another. Zoomers, maybe hold off telling your boss to get lost just yet – even if they are a crusty old millennial.