Mrs Lawyer is a senior partner in a prestigious law firm and mother of two adorable little girls. Family life is “all taken care of” — with Nanny 1 caring for the girls during the day and Nanny 2 taking over at night. Until, one day, Nanny 1 drops the girls off at ballet, assuming Nanny 2 will pick them up later. Nanny 2 is sick and tells Mrs Lawyer, to fetch the girls. Mrs Lawyer calls the nannies to get the address of the ballet school. No one picks up her calls. Mrs Lawyer is in a bit of strife. No worries; she gets Miss Secretary to call every single ballet school in the area to see where her adorable daughters are enrolled…

This story would send shivers up any young professional’s spine. Those who work in prestigious, high-powered workplaces are scared that their jobs are taking over their lives and that they have no control over the situation. A graduate from a global investment banking company asks, “If I’m working 9am to 9pm now, how am I going to cope with a family in the future?”

According to Wall Street Journal writer Ron Alsop, the young people lining up for jobs today belong to a generation of “trophy kids” — the much-rewarded products of doting parents, teachers and coaches — who feel entitled to shape their jobs to fit their lives rather than adapt their lives to the workplace. Although they will have to temper their expectations during the current recession, he says, “their sense of entitlement is an ingrained trait that will likely resurface in a stronger job market.” 

If Alsop is right, it will be interesting to see whether the corporate world buckles to the Millennials’ demands. For the moment, however, things are not going at all their way.

University students work long hard hours, trading out-of-high-school salaries to secure careers in large, global companies. The competition is cut-throat and it is on the rise. British reports suggest that graduates leaving university this summer face the toughest job market in a decade, with a 40 per cent drop in vacancies in the financial sector alone. A survey shows that students have hit a “wall of fear” about the competition — fear that is unjustified, according to mega-firm Deloitte.

You just can't say no

The desperation to secure a highly-coveted position can push ambitious young workers to perform the unreasonable, and employers to take advantage of them. One law graduate was asked to summarise a 150-page document by the next morning (it had taken his senior manager seven hours to read through a mere 100-page document) and he was given the job of doing this précis at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Graduates say that it’s not even an option to say no to such outlandish requests; you just can’t say it.

This appears to be a world-wide experience. A Philippines graduate currently working for a global fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) company in the IT audit division, works 50 to 55 hours a week. On top of that she has to study to be certified as an auditor in her own time. If this is the case, where does leisure and social time fit in? “I still take time to go to the gym after work and then continue with night calls afterwards,” she says. It’s difficult to know where she gets the energy for it all. When asked how often she works overtime she says, “Most of the time, since I have to be up at night to deal with people from the US and Europe.”

A Canadian graduate working as a systems engineer for a Los Angeles corporate finance company said it is typical to work 100 hours a week. For him there is no work-life balance, there is only work. He says, “You are expected to be working all the time, otherwise it’s suspected that you didn’t value your job very much.”

Chasing the bonus

But hang on a minute. Don’t these corporate underlings bear some responsibility for their plight? A graduate working for an Australian bank says that, in his experience, the most common reason among fellow Gen Y-ers for working late is chasing the bonus.

“The logic is simple: stay back late, impress the boss and get the bonus. If you leave early (6pm) to spend time with your soccer mates, family, friends, or at extra-curricular activities you are not perceived as a ‘value adder’. There is no bonus for family relationships.”

Often enough, he adds, people are not even working in any meaningful sense but spending “face time” which then “sets a precedent for yourself and for other graduates. Consequently a habit develops and everyone soon finds themselves with more work than they bargained for.”

This is confirmed by a law graduate who says that his job is to assist (impress?) the law partner he works for. If the partner is still working, he believes he should still be working. This idea goes to an extreme when at 2am in he is still asking, “Is there anything else I can do?”

There is nothing wrong with working hard. Some might even argue that over-working builds up the moral fibre of society and that “workaholism” is a clean addiction. Clearly these people have not considered the health of young adults who go for days on end hunched over paper work, eating only bowls of boiled rice and drinking Coke because there is no time for proper meals.

One overworked graduate says that on weekends she wants to catch up with friends and family, but her body is begging her for sleep. This leaves her torn because she feels unsatisfied if she spends the whole weekend snoozing, but she really needs it.

Is work the new leisure?

On the other hand, the young adults interviewed for this article enjoy the work they are doing. Most feel that it is in line with what they have studied at university. They describe work as challenging, novel and professionally stimulating. In some cases the intrinsic interest of a job and the working environment can keep a young worker in voluntary captivity at the office. In this way — and especially if he or she lacks home life — work becomes the new leisure.

More likely, though, work is replacing real leisure. We are talking here about recreation, about doing things that that are valuable for their own sake such as reflecting on the meaning of life, attending cultural events or learning a new language. These non-utilitarian activities can be lost in a fast-paced and efficiency-obsessed culture. When your mind and body are exhausted from overwork, what leisure time there is tends to be squandered on passive entertainments: hours spent in front of the television or sleeping weekends away. In this way the person becomes impoverished on many levels: personal, familial and social.

Clarifying priorities

It seems high time, then, that the new generation of graduates took a stand — not from a sense of personal “entitlement”, like the so-called “trophy kids” mentioned earlier, but from a sense of responsibility to themselves and other young workers.

Virginia Mills, the CEO of a New Zealand legal practice, agrees that the work culture in her profession needs a thorough overhaul. It starts back in law school, she says, where students need to challenge the assumption that they will be working a 12-hour day once they are hired. How about showing a little academic independence, professor, and putting work-life balance in the picture?

To achieve change, though, students have to have a clear order of priorities, says Mrs Mills. As she sees it, there are three pillars to a healthy workplace structure: service to clients, respect for the human rights and dignity of each person in the firm, and recognition of the importance of family life.

“What the workaholics fail to see is that the workplace can’t manufacture good employees. It’s healthy family life that gives us people with a good work ethic and a an ethic of service to the clients. If people miss out on that in the family they certainly will not get it by spending all their waking hours at the office.”

Mrs Mills is optimistic that change is coming in her profession, but she points out that it will be lawyers on the ground, particularly women, who organize themselves to achieve a balance between work and family life — “I’ve done that with my own staff within my firm.”

So there you have it, graduates. The Mrs-Lawyer-who-can’t-find-her-kids syndrome can be beaten. It may take a while yet, but knowing what you are aiming at is half the struggle.

Pamela Golamco is a recent graduate working in Auckland, New Zealand.