Keep the Porsche, I'd rather have a life

The Nineties yuppie wants something more than serious money - 'work/life balance'. Even if it means earning less. Emma Cook on an attitude revolution
Something strange is stirring in the consciousness of the British yuppie. Take Olivia, a 30-year-old solicitor for one of the larger City firms in London. Over the past six months she hasn't been home before 10pm - which gives her just enough time to slob in front of the TV, knock back a bottle of Chardonnay and commiserate with the characters in her favourite soap This Life. It's the nearest she gets to a weekly social life. Olivia isn't happy. "What's the point of earning pots when you haven't got time to spend it?" she says with a sigh.

Stuff the Ferrari, the business lunches at Quags and the weekends in Paris - quality time with friends and family is what many upwardly mobile professionals now crave. For Olivia, the comfort of pounds 50,000 a year plus "perks"; company car, pension etc, is, she feels, scant reward for the gruelling routine she endures. Five years ago, she would have been content with a pay rise that matched her commitment. Now, though, she's looking for precisely the opposite - less money in exchange for less responsibility. "If someone offered me a job for pounds 10,000 or even pounds 15,000 less along with fewer hours I'd take it", she says. And, despite her designer clothes, you can tell she means it - in theory at least.

So, what is this? A City yuppie who's losing her material aspirations; who yearns less for the annual bonus than "bonding" with friends and family? Surely a contradiction in terms of young, single, go-getters. Probably. But Olivia's too exhausted to explain the paradox. She says, "All I can think or talk about is work because I don't really do anything else. I feel constantly tired out and spend most of the weekend sleeping." Not that she wants to reject her status completely - just enjoy a bit more balance. "I'm not about to drop out and give up being ambitious. I just don't see why you can't have both; a good career but more of a life. At this point, if it meant a few less material benefits I wouldn't mind."

Many of her friends, she says, feel the same way. Her friend Ben, 31 and a dealer in a City bank, is planning a couple of years off to travel abroad. "Last year, it dawned on me that I never had the time to spend any of the money I was making anyway. So, what's the point really? Now I want to spend time living rather than living to work." His two mates - also dealers - are going with him.

Their change of heart is not unique according to a MORI poll carried out for the management consultancy WFD and published last week. In the survey, one in five of all respondents said they were so concerned about the lack of balance between work and home life, they would accept a cut in pay to have more free time. And 92 per cent of under 35s felt that the ability to balance work with personal life was very or at least fairly important.

Much has been made of the pressures on professionals with young children. But talk to single men and women at managerial level and the picture is hardly less stressful. Because employers perceive this group to be relatively commitment-free there is even more pressure on them to work ridiculously long hours. The difference is that increasing numbers of them can no longer see the pay off. If the alternative is sacrificing the flash car, downsizing the swish space in Clerkenwell and shaving the six-figure salary, then maybe that's a small price to pay, they say.

"A lot of different research has highlighted how people's aspirations have changed", says Liz Bargh, chief executive of WFD. "People are saying, 'I have no social life and no friends.' There's too much investment when everything's just work." Ros Taylor, managing director of Plus Consulting, says, "There's more cynicism towards success. High-fliers are suffering because of the pressure and they're beginning to feel, 'Why am I doing this? I'm just so tired.'"

Not that they want to drop out altogether, just have a little less cake and eat it. Bargh says, "The yuppie still exists. But it's a yuppie with a difference." New Yuppie is disillusioned but the biggest change is that they are not as greedy as their Eighties equivalents. Even if they wouldn't welcome a drop in salary for more free time, everyone I spoke to was adamant they'd turn down a generous pay rise if it meant ten hours extra work a week.

"There's no way I'd take more money to work harder," says Rachel, 29 and a personnel manager for a large retail company. "I think it could be an age thing," she reflects. "When I first started out, I wanted the flat, the car and the whole package. As you get into your thirties you think, is it all really worth it? I look back and think, "I used to have hobbies. I don't now. I spend so much time at work, I've got more in common with work friends than anyone else, which can't be healthy. I wouldn't like to spend the rest of my life working like this." Catherine, 31, talks wistfully about changing her career as a television director and training to be an aromatherapist instead. "The point is, you would have to be earning a hell of a lot to be able to take a cut in pay. I couldn't afford to do that, which is why most of us carry on - there's no choice. But I have seriously reconsidered taking up another sort of job or freelancing, so I've got more control over my work." She takes a dim view of the Eighties- style yuppie. "They got it all wrong; giving everything to work is, I think, a form of escapism - you aren't facing up to real life."

For the thirtysomethings and below, the yuppie defines a set of values that are deeply unfashionable. The Nineties professional may have inherited their workload, but they want to reject the mindset that goes with it. Nowhere is this more obvious than among the 18 to 25s. As Donna Spriggs, managing director of Reaction, a youth marketing consultancy, explains, "Quality of life is a hell of a lot more important to this age group - they are nowhere near as materialistic. They don't expect to be working the hours people did in the Eighties. It's all to do with people valuing their leisure-time and shifting priorities to friends and family."

This shift is reflected in a recent global student survey carried out four months ago by accountancy firm Coopers & Lybrand. Respondents' number- one priority was to "achieve a balanced lifestyle and to have a rewarding life outside work." In terms of importance, they placed "personal growth" ahead of "building a career." It's hard to dismiss this as student idealism when this week's MORI poll reflected such similar concerns among thirtysomethings, too.

It is harder still to find young professionals who can find a semblance of balance. Alistair, 30, and an area manager for a retail company, is probably one of the few - even though he had to accept a pounds 10,000 pay cut for the privilege. He explains, "Two years ago I moved from London to Manchester to take up a promotion. All my friends there used to rib me for being a yuppie and secretly I quite liked that. I loved the idea of earning a wad of money but nothing had prepared me for the hours I had to put in."

"I'd come down to enjoy London and after six months I hadn't been out once. In the end, I told my boss I had personal problems which meant I'd have to take a less demanding position. Effectively, I blew my chances with the company overnight. He said that I wouldn't be in line for any promotions and I'd earn a lot less." It's a decision he's never regretted. "I've got my priorities right. I'm happy with the money I earn but I've got a life. I even went to Glastonbury this year - something I wouldn't have dreamt of doing five years ago. And I've got rid of my mobile phone", he laughs. A surer sign than any that the demise of the yuppie is all but complete.

Comments