Feeling exhausted after a busy working week? Perhaps you should be more like Hugh Jackman.
The Australian actor has made headlines by advocating the “85% rule”, an unofficial guide to life that, says its fans, means we should try hard at things – but not too hard. Elite athletes know that if you tell them to run at 85% capacity rather than 100% they will perform better in the end because they are relaxed, Jackman told a podcast, a rule he tries to follow in his own career.
Jackman is not the only advocate of applying yourself just that little bit less. Gabrielle Judge, a 26-year-old, Colorado-based TikTok user, has risen to immense popularity on the site by urging followers to look for “lazy girl jobs” – roles requiring minimal effort for the same reward (she recommends “marketing associate or some type of account manager” as examples).
“Having a nine-to-five is still cool, like there’s still something very sexy to that,” she says on one video that has been liked more than 340,000 times, but “there’s so much to us. We’re so multifaceted. And I believe that [unless] you take away this pressure of working paycheck to paycheck … we’re just not operating at our fullest potential.”
Do just enough so as not to be the first person fired, advises Judge, or “AntiWork Girlboss”: “Be the second worst on your team, and just go live your life.”
Recent research from King’s College London suggests many Britons may not need much persuasion. An international study found that of 24 nations surveyed, people from Britain were the least likely to say that work was rather or very important to their lives, and the most likely to say it was not important at all.
From “quiet quitting” – last year’s buzzy hashtag for “phoning it in” – to the “great resignation”, in which workers left their jobs in record numbers after the pandemic, there is no doubt attitudes to work are shifting. So are we getting lazier? Is this all about feckless youngsters who don’t know the meaning of hard work? Or is there something more fundamental going on?
In some respects, of course, we can celebrate a world in which work is less dominant, says Bobby Duffy, professor of public policy at Kings, who led the recent study. At the end of the 19th century, the average working week was 66 hours, he notes, a figure that continues to fall. “Generally speaking, we have got more productive and better off in a period of several decades, and there is more scope to have slightly more balance in our lives between work and other things.”
That said, he adds: “It definitely is not some kind of utopian work-life balance we have ended up with.”
Ben Harrison, the director of the Work Foundation thinktank, agrees, stressing that while it is tempting to conflate different people talking about working less, not everyone has positive reasons for valuing work less.
After a decade of wage stagnation and with unaffordable housing, declining public services, limited access to childcare and a cost of living crisis, for many people “there is a waning of confidence that work will ultimately give them the kind of life and rewards they’re looking for. That probably holds for many, many people.” Younger people, women and people from ethnic minorities are more likely to be affected, he says.
More than 6 million people are in severely insecure work in the UK, Harrison says, and many of those on zero-hours contracts would love to work more hours, if only they could make it work with childcare or transport costs. “They are very, very unlikely to be in a position where they’re saying: ‘Well, actually, I’m only going to give 85% of myself to work.’”
Our perceived importance of “work centrality” has definitely shifted, accelerated by the pandemic, says Jonny Gifford, a senior adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD). British workers, according to their own research, are more likely to say that they’re in work just for the money, and less inclined to say they would keep working if they didn’t need to.
The “85% rule” may be a buzzy phrase, but it makes a lot of sense, as good employers recognise, he says. “You can exceed 100% of some things – you could go above and beyond in hitting your targets, maybe. But you can’t exceed 100% of effort. You can have short bursts but you can’t keep that up all the time.”
“That’s not rocket science – and it’s not even new,” he says, noting that Bartleby the Scrivener, in Herman Melville’s 1853 short story of the same name, was already an expert quiet quitter (asked to complete a task, he would simply repeat: “I would prefer not to.”) Duffy, too, rejects the idea that younger people are somehow uniquely work-shy: “There is no evidence for that.”
There is no doubt, says Duffy, that there are “big strong tides of shifting opinion” in our attitudes to work, but we should not overstate the changes – for now.
“This is not people rejecting work – you still have almost three-quarters of people in the UK saying work is very or rather important in their lives, and the large majority saying that hard work plays a role in getting a better life.”
The big change is yet to come, with the long-promised integration of AI into the workplace, with still unknown implications. How will that affect the value that we get from work? “The reality is, we don’t know. And I don’t think we’re very well prepared for it at all.
“So I wouldn’t worry about these trends, as currently measured, being a massive disruption for how society feels about work. But there is one coming.”