To survey the landscape, you would think “ambition” had become a swear word.
After a decade of #girlboss #hustle, the tides seem to have turned. “Antiwork” is the name of one of the most popular subreddits, panicky think pieces about workers merely fulfilling their job descriptions and going home at five (as they are contractually guaranteed the right to do), populate the pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and I keep hearing from folks in management that “nobody wants to work anymore.”
There’s always a tinge of sadness alongside the stated frustration, as if a way of life is passing away. Perhaps it is.
I don’t believe that “nobody” wants to work (at least, no more than everybody wants to not work), but it’s clear that attitudes regarding how we work, and what relationship there should be between employers and employees, are still in the process of a profound pandemic-jumpstarted shift. There is still a labor disconnect. In August 2022, roughly six million people were looking for work, while there were roughly ten million available jobs. That’s a difference of around four million open positions. For a sense of scale, pre-pandemic, there were usually only about 100,000 more jobs than job-seekers at any given time.
This has had, and continues to have, a profound impact on the labor market, one to which management as a class seems not to have caught up. I’ve listened to the employee side of this: workers feel infantilized, untrusted, disrespected, exploited, feelings that this labor market has made easier and easier to express and act on. Neither the Great Resignation nor the purported epidemic of “quiet quitting” we’re all suddenly concerned about are inexplicable. Both are happening because the world has changed, and as a result, has demanded changes in our work culture. One of those changes, happening right under management’s noses, is that the definition of success itself has changed.
The labor market is sustaining conditions where workers are freer to work the way they want to work. It is harder to require extra unpaid labor from people who have no interest in providing it. But that also means there are more and more opportunities for those who do want to get ahead in the workplace to stand out and excel. More than ever before in modern American economic history, workers are free to have the relationship they want with their employers. What’s so shocking is the discovery of just how many people don’t particularly want to succeed on the terms we’re so used to.
Anyone who really sits down and talks to millennials or, increasingly, zoomers about what they want out of their life will learn that fewer and fewer of them are interested in wealth or power. They increasingly reject conceptions of success based on what they happen to do for a living. While the old guard mourns the loss of ambition, it’s plain that younger generations are brimming with it. They’re simply directing it toward different goals. Success means, for them, having enough to live a good life spent with friends and family now. And it is about self-dominion. The pushback against mandatory return to office plans, especially, comes from employees valuing having genuine control over their own time. I know many who enjoyed going into the office until their company made it mandatory.
There is (almost) nothing more foundational to the entire concept of postwar America than getting ahead, and yet, it’s only getting less and less popular. As a businesswoman, I find that curious and not entirely simple to get my head around. I came of age in the Reagan years and whet my appetite on the energetic pro-business economics of the nineties, when ambition was the word on everyone’s lips. While I was never on the “greed is good” bandwagon that was all the rage at the time, I valued (and still value) hard work, drive, and yes, hustle. I embodied these values in myself as much as I expected them from my team.
Whenever management says, “Nobody wants to work anymore,” or “Everyone is lazy,” what they are really communicating, whether consciously or not, is that fewer people are playing the game the way they’re used to. In a labor-favorable job market like the one we have right now, there is less and less incentive for employees to go “above and beyond” because (and this is a good thing) they aren’t terrified of losing their jobs if they don’t. Jobs are plentiful. Salaries are going up. Resignations are still high. Meanwhile, the older generation in the workforce continues to be used to the working conditions that have prevailed for the last few decades, buoyed by worker fear of poverty, which generates a great deal of cultural shock: why isn’t everyone trying to get ahead?
The surprising answer is that, mostly, people weren’t doing that anyway. They were trying to stay afloat, working extra hours to ensure they kept their jobs rather than got promoted (something that very often doesn’t lead to better work). Most people don’t want to spend all their time at work. And for the vast majority of people, work is not their number one priority. That’s okay. It’s normal and healthy even. I for one celebrate our current shift toward better work-life balance. Personally, I’ve always believed that people do their best work when they’re focused on results – not hours – and are allowed to set healthy boundaries so they can make their lives whole and avoid burnout. Setting your team up for success, giving them the space to do their best work, and treating them with respect is, after all, what great managers do.
Meanwhile, ambition – thankfully – isn’t going anywhere. The fact that we have more opportunities and avenues to pursue our ambitions thrills me. It means smarter work, greater innovation, new ideas, and, I suspect, many new businesses. Your passion may not lie in your 9-5 – it may simply be the thing you do so that you can follow your true ambition.
Whatever passion is driving you, whatever your ambition may be, hustle is always going to be vital. In many fields, that will look much the same as it has: going after promotions, working long hours, taking on extra work, and yes, going above and beyond, fighting hard to advance and excel. The world still vitally needs that. But ambition doesn’t only look like that. Maybe it means forgoing overtime so you can pursue a degree or launch a small business. The point is, it’s going to look different for everyone. And I think there’s more than enough room for whatever form it takes.
Even if individual “hustle” is still alive and well, maybe “hustle culture” is dead. Maybe we’ve spent too much time over the last decade pushing the “gig economy” and encouraging workers to monetize every aspect of their lives. But it definitely remains more than okay to be proud to be someone who does want to push, who does want to stay late to see a project through, who wants to strive and fight and lead. Even if the #girlboss moment has (rightfully) come and gone, young women especially need to know that ambition isn’t a vice.
The question now is, what do you want?
If your ambition lies in spending more time with your family and friends, coaching your kid’s soccer team, tending to your garden, or carving out time to volunteer in your community, learn a new skill, or cultivate a new hobby, chase after it with everything you’ve got! Set boundaries at work, choose a job that allows space for your passions, build a life that supports your goals, and by all means – clock out at 5pm. That’s your life, your choice, and it’s increasingly possible to do your job well and still spend your life how you want to.
On the flipside, if you’re a little more like me, and your ambitions lie in jumpstarting your career, launching your business, or climbing the corporate ladder, then unapologetically go above and beyond. Stay late, take on more responsibility and leadership opportunities, and hustle!
Neither choice is more worthy than the other.
I like to say, if you want to live (and give) the way other people can’t, you have to work like others won’t. That’s always been true. It’s probably more true now than it was in 2019. Follow your dreams, but if your dreams include becoming CEO, you need to do what it takes to get there, and there are no better candidates for leadership than those who have demonstrated their willingness to take on the responsibility of it. That also hasn’t changed.
Ambitious young women, there has never been a better time to be ambitious, it's never been easier to stand out, to forge your own destiny.