By Lisa Owens
Today’s young women are desperate to find meaning – as well as money – in their careers. But, asks novelist Lisa Owens, are they being idealistic or unrealistic?
So, is your novel autobiographical? This is invariably the first thing I’m asked when I tell people what Not Working is about: a young woman living in London who quits her job in order to discover her true purpose in life.
The question is a little disconcerting – it is fiction, after all, and the protagonist, Claire, is in certain ways a bit of a hopeless case.
But even I can see that Claire and I share some key characteristics: I’m a woman, young-ish (well, 30), living in London, who quit my job in pursuit of a potentially elusive career.
Like Claire, I have spent more money than I’d like to admit in coffee shops, and too many precious hours disappearing down internet rabbit-holes.
Unlike Claire, though, who has no idea what she wants to do, or how to go about finding out, I did leave my job with a plan.
In the summer of 2012, I handed in my notice to the publisher where I worked as an editor and enrolled on a year-long creative writing MA at the University of East Anglia, hoping to one day follow in my authors’ footsteps by becoming published myself.
There were a number of false starts on the novel front (I’ll spare myself the embarrassment of elaborating further) before I came up with the seed of what turned into Not Working.
Claire’s predicament seems to have struck a chord among my peers and I have certainly encountered some of the quandaries and questions she’s facing.
What if the career you embarked on in your early 20s doesn’t feel right any more? How do you go about figuring out what will make you happy if you have no experience in any other field? Why does everyone else seem to be at once so professionally fulfilled while also vastly out-earning you?
I have a group of close female friends from school. Recently we were all together and realised that out of the eight of us, only two are currently in full-time office-based employment.
Of the remaining five (not including me) two are on maternity leave, one has left her corporate job of nine years to go travelling and figure out what’s next, one in the charity sector is taking a sabbatical for similar reasons and another has just decided to go freelance in events and project management.
It seems no coincidence that so many of these bright, educated and ambitious women made big life-changing decisions at around the same time.
For the mothers, there is the obvious biological clock factor at play, and this had an impact on why I left my job when I did.
I was 27 at the time, just married and knew I wanted to have children at some point – but I also wanted to give writing a go before committing to family life and the inevitable professional sacrifices it would entail.
Now at 30, with a young baby and my first book about to come out, I’m grateful I took the plunge when I did.
Motherhood brings with it many privileges and gifts but time to myself – for the moment at least – is not among them.
For the rest of these school friends, I think there’s a common denominator to the timing of their career changes.
We are no longer so young that the thrill of payday can make up for the lack of enthusiasm we might feel week-in, week-out. Now that our income is less disposable – where once we’d splurge on nights out and clothes, the focus has turned to less glamorous things such as mortgages – the way we earn it has become much more important to us.
A number of my contemporaries from university have also followed this trend in recent years, eschewing the dependable salaries of their early 20s in favour of working for themselves in more creative capacities, such as graphic design.
Others have taken substantial pay cuts to do something that they feel contributes to the greater good – one friend moved out of private equity into the civil service for this reason.
In Not Working, Claire leaves her job because she has a niggling sense that there is something better and more rewarding out there for her, but she has neither a vocation nor a burning passion she must pursue at all costs.
I suspect this is a common problem: not everyone has the wherewithal or foresight to commit to a career such as medicine or law in their teens, and fewer people still are passionate enough about – or, let’s face it, good enough at – a hobby to turn it into a viable career.
But that doesn’t stop many of them feeling they are somehow failing to fulfil their creative and professional potential.
This is a notion that seems to plague Generation Y: while our parents were perhaps more content to find work that provided financial stability, we have grown up believing we can be anything we want.
I wonder if this conviction comes in part from the media’s obsession with modern-day rags-to-riches stories. Most of the highest-rating television programmes in recent years – The X Factor, The Great British Bake Off, Britain’s Got Talent – are based around the idea of ordinary people being plucked from obscurity and catapulted to fame doing the thing they love most, be it singing, baking or performing dance routines with their dog.
The message during the emotional finales always seems to be the same – dare to dream big, pursue your passion at all costs – and even a cynic like me can’t help but feel a little inspired and tearful every time the winner is announced.
But does it promote a healthy way of thinking? Might these shows – when that vicarious endorphin-rush of victory has died down – leave us feeling more dissatisfied with ourselves? It’s not just TV that heaps pressure on the younger generation.
With the advent of aspirational, lifestyle-focused media such as Instagram, we are all guilty of curating our experiences to show them at their best and most enviable – and the world of work is by no means exempt.
I follow people who make their living in the arts and media industries and my feed is filled with images of beautiful books, fashion-week shows and unfeasibly exotic business-trip locations.
The more mundane, day-to-day realities of work rarely feature: inboxes full of unanswered emails, piles of invoices, sandwiches hastily devoured al desko. Is it any wonder that young people hold such high – even unrealistic – expectations of their nine-to-fives?
The twin pressures of student debt and the rising state pension age present a daunting prospect to graduates entering the job market.
Finding a meaningful, fulfilling career seems all the more crucial if you take the long view, but I think we’re gradually recalibrating our idea of what ‘career’ means: until recently, for many it meant staying in the same line of work until you retired, whereas it’s now becoming increasingly acceptable – even expected – that the job you have at 21 might be nothing like the one you end up with at 65.
Nonetheless, changing profession can be hugely daunting. All the years you’ve spent accumulating experience, knowledge, contacts and respect can suddenly feel worthless when you decide to take the plunge and do something else.
I was very fortunate to have a supportive partner, and recognise that for many, leaving a steady job to retrain is no small undertaking, not just financially but psychologically too.
For me, mapping out the path I hoped to follow was crucial to keep me on track – I didn’t just quit my job one day and get a publishing deal the next.
There were a lot of steps along the way to make it happen: get on to the master’s course, complete it, find an agent and so on.
I tried to view writing as a new phase of my career, rather than a totally new career in itself, and I think that mindset, and having those smaller, more achievable goals in mind, helped to keep me sane on what was at times quite a lonely road.
This is partly why Claire in my novel encounters so many problems when she ups and leaves her job without any idea where to go next.
She acts impulsively – driven by this sense that she isn’t quite where she expected to be in life – and then finds herself completely flummoxed when the answer doesn’t immediately present itself.
She becomes paralysed by the number of options open to her and by the possibility that nothing will be exactly right.
In pinning all her hopes on finding this mythical, cure-all job, she loses sight of the bigger picture: that your work doesn’t define you as a person and a career doesn’t have to mean one role, or one industry, for 40-odd years.
Not everyone is in a position to make money doing what they love, and in writing my novel I wanted to challenge the idea that there is a ‘dream’ career out there for everyone.
I think we fetishise success today in quite a particular and unhelpful way, equating how we earn our money with our self-worth, and feeling we have fallen short if we don’t possess a burning love for the nuts and bolts of what we do.
I would argue that there’s nothing wrong at all with work being a means to an end, as long as the ‘end’ is what makes you happy – whether that’s having a family, travelling, helping others or pursuing a hobby in your free time.
And, in any case, a job is a whole lot more than a title: it can also offer a ready-made community, a unique network of people pulling together for a common purpose.
These relationships may be hugely rewarding in themselves – indeed, one of my closest friends is someone I met in my first job a decade ago.
Fulfilment, after all, comes in many guises – social and emotional as well as professional – and tuning into those needs is every bit as, if not more, important than how you earn your salary. It’s something I wish I’d known in my early 20s.
Riddled with anxiety about whether I was in the ‘right’ job, I would constantly ask myself whether I should be doing something more impressive, or exciting, or high-powered, or worthwhile, but of course those judgments are completely subjective.
Yes, your job can be the most important thing in your life, and if you love what you do, so much the better, but loving your job isn’t always the same as loving yourself: that is, and always will be, a work-in-progress.
Not Working by Lisa Owens is published by Picador, price £12.99.