The soft life: why millennials are quitting the rat race

Rose Gardner did everything right. Straight As at school and college, a first-class degree from a top university, a master’s. She got a job in publishing and rose through the ranks of some of the industry’s most prestigious companies before getting a job with a media organisation. Eventually, she bought her own flat in London.

But each time she reached a new milestone, she didn’t feel any real joy.

“I remember walking into my flat, and this might make me sound so ungrateful, but I felt scared,” she says. “I knew I was going to have to keep working at this job that I hated to pay the mortgage.”

It wasn’t that there was anything particularly bad about the job, it was more that as time went on, she says she didn’t feel driven by the consumerism that the companies she worked for depended on. She’d lost her sense of materialism and didn’t get much from going to bars, clubs or parties. On top of that, she had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which made working in an open-plan office with a strict 9-5 policy incredibly hard. Gardner, 42, works best in isolation, early in the morning and in the evening, and she didn’t feel her workplace was prepared to accommodate that. Pushing through her afternoon “crashes” for years had become exhausting. So, five years ago, she had what she called her “Jerry Maguire moment”. She quit. She sold her flat and moved back to her parents’ house in Wiltshire, where she now works part-time in hospitality and handcrafts jewellery and ceramics from a shed in the garden. She has little income, but also very few outgoings.

“My parents are getting older and I pay them rent and my own bills. I have my own little area. We get to live a separate but together life and I see that as a privilege. I meditate and take long walks with my dog in nature … I lost my relationship with myself when I listened so much to what I should be doing. Now, I get a lot more pleasure out of the small things.”

Gardner is living what is increasingly becoming known online as the “soft life”. As a millennial, she is part of a generation brought up to take pride in hard work, who now find themselves in the midst of a cost of living crisis and the third recession of their lifetimes. As Gabrielle Judge, better known online as the Anti Work Girlboss, says: “You think your managers will take care of you? Your job will take care of you? That really crumbled for millennials, especially during the 2008 recession.”

For millennials and the younger generation Z and Alphas, who may never be able to afford to buy a home or retire at a reasonable age, there is a growing feeling online that hard work is fortifying a system that, at best, is giving them nothing back and, at worst, is actively screwing them over. And so the “soft life” revolution was born – where the priority is no longer about working yourself to the bone to be a #girlboss or “leaning in” to the corporate male world, as former Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote, and pushing until you “have it all”. The goal of a softer life is more time and energy for what makes you happy and as little time as possible focusing on what doesn’t.

‘I equated being successful with doing something I didn’t like’ … Rose Gardner in her studio. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Guardian

Judge, 26, coined the term “lazy girl job” back in 2023 on TikTok. She had graduated with a computer science degree in 2019 and got a job at a tech company. Two exhausting years later, she received a $10k a year pay increase. On the surface, it seemed great. But then she looked deeper. “Even before taxes, that’s only $5K a year for doing 60 hours of work a week,” she says. And with inflation factored in, it was technically a pay cut. “I didn’t see the payoff,” she says.

Judge was forced to take two months off after a serious concussion – and she never went back. She got an entry-level job in customer services for a website-building platform. “I was technically underemployed and wasn’t really using my degree, but I was still paying my bills and was comfortable,” says Judge, who lives in Denver, Colorado. “It was the biggest breakthrough on a spiritual level – with my friendships and relationships.” And that is where her notion of a “lazy girl job” started to form – a job that is typically low in stress, fully remote and with enough salary to pay for the bare essentials.

Judge has since built a huge audience online – with more than 400,000 followers across her various social media platforms. She has created a community of people sharing their stories of working all hours and getting little in return as mass redundancies and AI come for their jobs. She now advocates for a four-day week, living wage and prioritising health and wellbeing. “I’m not telling people exactly how much they need to be working,” she says. “I’m just trying to create more permission for whatever makes you happy.”

Abadesi Osunsade, 37, speaks to me as she power walks between her meetings. As the CEO of her company Hustle Crew, which delivers diversity and inclusion training, and co-host of the podcast Techish, she is not the most obvious proponent of the “soft life”. Yet she advocates for the same “laziness” and boundaries that Judge champions. In her 20s, she worked in tech startups, doing 12-hour days while building Hustle Crew in every spare moment. She lived in a “six-week cycle of burnout”. Now her own business is established, she has been able to introduce “softness” into her life, making time for relationships, exercise and visiting family in the Philippines. This “softer” life is a work in progress “and that’s OK,” she says. What is most important for Osunsade, is to no longer define herself by her output. “Productivity and fulfilment become conflated,” she says. “What value do you actually get from being busy? Are you cultivating enough self-love and self-awareness to enjoy downtime?” She says many of us feel guilt when not filling every hour serving some greater purpose or goal. “Why is there shame in not being busy?” she asks. “Have we been so brainwashed by capitalism that you have to be busy to be worth something?”

Osunsade views the late-capitalist approach to work as being mired in historical and cultural prejudices. “For black people, our value was as forced labourers. If you can socialise people into thinking that they are only good for what they make and what they do, the other side of that coin is that they’ll feel guilty when they’re not doing anything.”

‘I’m not telling people how much they need to work. I’m trying to create more permission for whatever makes you happy’ … Gabrielle Judge. Photograph: Isiah Yibibo

She puts the rise in “soft living” down to the current economic and political climate – especially the Trump administration. “A lot of that naive optimism that helped movements like ‘lean in’ happen was confronted by the crushing reality of patriarchy,” she says. And telling women to just work harder to become equal with men has proved a fallacy when, 10 years on from Sandberg’s book, the gender pay gap remains at 16% in the US. As Michelle Obama put it: “it’s not always enough to lean in, because that shit doesn’t work all the time”. Especially if you have the intersectional pressures that immigrants, queer women and women of colour have, too. The soft life is a logical reaction to a macro-level business model that suppresses the wages of society’s most vulnerable.

In the US, Black women earned 30% less than white men in 2022. In the UK, that figure is 26% – and it rises to 31% for Pakistani women. This discrimination takes a toll on the body and spirit. Even high-profile figures such as MP Diane Abbott face levels of abuse that far surpass their white professional counterparts. A leaked internal Labour party report from 2020 documented how Abbott’s colleagues would mock her for crying and called her “repulsive” and “angry”. It is this additional burden that makes the soft life even more appealing to young Black women. “It’s listening to your mind and body’s needs and putting them first in a system where women are encouraged to put others’ needs before our own,” says Osunsade. The poet and feminist Audre Lorde in her book A Burst of Light set out the radical implications of self-care and womanhood, writing, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

The soft life approach is not without its critics. In 2022, Kim Kardashian infamously claimed that women need to “get your fucking ass up and work” as “it seems like nobody wants to work these days”. She was forced to apologise – after it was pointed out that coming from a rich, already-famous family in LA would have its advantages in the job market. Not to mention that while Kardashian has become a billionaire off the back of her fashion and beauty brands, some former employees alleged that they were scraping by on unlivable wages, with barely enough money to get to work. Other figures have made “soft living” about a generational divide. Whoopi Goldberg has said that millennials and gen Z who feel that life milestones such as having children and owning houses are out of reach just aren’t working hard enough. “I’m sorry – if you only want to work four hours, it’s going to be harder for you to get a house,” she said. Jodie Foster told the Guardian that gen Z are “really annoying” to work with. “They’re like: ‘Nah, I’m not feeling it today, I’m gonna come in at 10.30am.’”

“We’re being lectured on not being hardworking enough by people who have no idea what it is like to never switch off,” says Osunsade. With Zoom and Slack keeping us connected to our workplaces at every moment, it is no longer plausible to say that you haven’t seen the emails that ping into your smartphone at the weekend. For Judge, she feels there is a “tendency online to blame all societal ills on our parents’ generations … but baby boomers aren’t stupid for doing what they did for their careers … I’m just saying it doesn’t work in today’s age.” The “return on investment” on working all hours for some kind of meritocratic ideal “just isn’t the same any more”.

No longer can you do everything society asks of you and be guaranteed to attain even the lowest totem on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, when in the US 53% of people living in homeless shelters were employed in 2021, and one in four of the households made homeless in 2022 in England had at least one person in work.

But to choose not to work, or to work less, can still be judged as a feminist betrayal. Osunsade recalls a conversation she had with an older colleague who described a bright young woman stopping working after having children as “an absolute crime. What a waste of a mind!”. “There is a sense,” she says, “that we have to have it all because people fought for us to be able to have it.” It was that idea – that a brilliant brain must be offered up on the sacrificial altar of capitalism – that made Gardner so miserable at work. As a child, “I was very much told art was a hobby and that I needed to go down the academic route, otherwise it would be a travesty … It felt as if choosing to do what I love was being lazy. I equated being successful with doing something I didn’t like.”

All around me I see overwork. Top editors who freelance at the weekends, small business owners who don’t have time to unpack the boxes in the homes they moved into three years ago, self-proclaimed cogs in corporate machines who drink Huel at their desks because they have no time to eat. Social conversations with peers vacillate between how unaffordable London, where I live, has become and symptoms of our almost perpetual burnout.

Is it possible to achieve a softer life without entirely uprooting yourself, which may not be realistic for many? For Osunsade, it’s about accepting that “people can only prioritise a small number of things. Women in particular, get into this trap of wanting to be the best mother, writer, friend, runner and yoga person in the class. We need to be happy with being the best in one or two roles and content with being mediocre in others.”

Embracing a little mediocrity is at the core of other online workplace trends, from “quiet quitting” (doing the minimum your job requires of you) to “bare minimum Mondays”. Osunsade suggests doing an “audit of priorities. Decide what your non-negotiables are. If it’s important for you to do bath time with your kids every night, then that is just a permanent block in your calendar that no one ever touches because it’s sacred. Every time you schedule a class, a walk, a beauty appointment, or buy a book, see it as a meeting that you can’t cancel.”

Gardner is now thriving in her softer life, which is filled with creativity and family. She finally feels that her life is a success. “There’s something about softness that is not valued in the corporate world or isn’t understood. It’s seen as a weakness.” But now, she says, “I see it as a strength.”

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The Guardian