In a move that sent shockwaves through France, eight new graduates from AgroParisTech, one of the country's most respected agricultural universities, announced they were deserting the industry altogether. "We don't see ourselves as 'talent' working for a sustainable planet," said Lola Keraron in speech delivered to her classmates at a recent graduation ceremony. "We see that agribusiness is waging a war on the living world and against farmers everywhere on earth."
Keraron warned her fellow engineers to reject the premise that climate change can be easily solved with new technologies, and instead urged for a fundamental rethink of agricultural practices and the ideologies that underpin them. An op-ed in Le Point, a weekly magazine published in Paris, described the dissenting new graduates as being infected by a "nihilist fever" that was sweeping the country.
In the United States, bewildered managers were confronted by the rise of "quiet quitting." The often-misunderstood phrase tried to capture the motivations of workers who were rejecting the toxic hustle-culture ideology that glorifies sacrificing one's health, relationships and sleep as markers of success. It has garnered a backlash, as well. For example, Arianna Huffington declared quiet quitting to be "a step toward quitting on life."
Halfway around the world, while President Xi Jinping encouraged Chinese youth to devote their energy in pursuit of national prosperity, his target audience was flocking online to join the "lie flat" movement. They were choosing to opt out of a punishing work life that failed to fulfill the promises of affordable housing, a reasonable cost of living and a better quality of life than their parents. In recent months, the "Lie Flat" has evolved into "Let It Rot," an intentional rejection of the status quo powered by the dissatisfaction of a generation that is grappling with limited economic opportunities and who lived through a 70-day heatwave. Chinese media labelled Lie Flatters as "the slacker generation."
This disappointing refrain has been repeated time and again: Young people don't want to work hard or participate in society anymore. But the current debate misses this core point: Wanting a different way of work is not the same thing as not wanting to work at all.
The rejection of modern-day working standards is the forced recalibration of economic systems that have been out of balance for decades. These systems were founded on a critical fallacy: an infinite supply of resources that will always be readily and cheaply available—a belief that equates unlimited growth as a key indicator of business performance.
Many people carry this ideology into their personal lives, applying the same unrealistic standards of performance in a never-ending race to be constantly productive. Isn't burnout simply the mismanagement of energy based on the assumption that creativity and attention exist in a never-ending supply?
Sustainable Ambition: Playing by New Rules
The term "regenerative agriculture" has been appearing more frequently in the online communities I study, as a new generation of activists, farmers and researchers seek ways to exist in harmony with the planet. Where sustainable farming prioritizes working with natural processes to achieve economic viability, restorative farming takes this process one step further and includes actively reversing current climate trends to restore the land instead of simply maintaining the status quo.
The current limitations of ESG are that we're attempting to change our style of play, while still being committed to the same game.
If ESG is the "sustainable farming" approach to our economic system, what would be the equivalent to restorative farming? In other words, what would a restorative capitalistic system look like if we insisted on a way of living and working that prioritized the restoration of both the planet and our own creative resources?
Companies would need to prove they were not simply sustaining the environment, but actively improving it. Stock prices would reflect a leader's ability to leave the planet in a better state than they found it. Instead of just measuring profit, we would measure the number of species removed from the endangered list, acres of reforestation, tons of microplastics removed from the ocean. We would measure the quality of life of communities where these companies operate.
For talent, we would orient business practice around sustainable performance practices like the rising popularity of the four-day work week.
The Restorative Workplace
Leaders can take small steps towards embracing a new ideology, including:
Establish realistic workflow. The expectation that employees can tackle complex and intellectually demanding tasks for the entirety of the workday is unrealistic. Time-tracking systems should have a set category for recovery. Each project would include an allocated amount of time set aside for recovery that workers are expected to use as a part of their workflow.
Limit the time and number of meetings. Meetings are another area that are particularly draining for workers. Default meeting times can be reduced to 50 minutes (or 25 minutes) to give workers some time to catch their breath between back-to-back calls. Limits can be set on the number of meetings allowed per day, and some days can be designated meeting-free.
Set expectations on digital communications. HR leaders should set clear norms around the use of digital communication tools. For example, what are the expectations for answering emails or messages outside of working hours? How long does a person have to reply? Setting expectations reduces stress within teams and enables them to focus on their work with fewer distractions, helping them finish faster and produce higher quality deliverables.
Encourage and pay for PTO. Companies could implement policies including mandatory paid time off. Organizations like LinkedIn and Nike have had success with companywide paid time off, alleviating the guilt of being on vacation while your team is still in the office. Leaders should model recovery behavior and encourage their teams to take full advantage of PTO.
Rethink performance reviews and workloads. Performance reviews should be oriented around "meeting expectations" or delivering the required quality of work in the allocated hours. Despite what #hustleculture wants you to believe, it is possible to be driven, committed to your job, invested in the company's success AND be able to log off at the end of the day to have a personal life. This might require a deep audit of employee workloads to determine if the assigned responsibilities can reasonably be completed within a standard work week. The 2008 economic recession gave rise to "super-jobs" in which employees were often doing the work of more than one person, setting a trend for unrealistic work demands that were never adjusted post-recovery.
At the root of our society's obsession with hustle culture is the intertwining of working hard with our self-worth as individuals. Working constant overtime, having a jam-packed calendar and not taking vacation days are seen as proof that you are deserving of your success—an iteration of the American Dream anchored in glowing articles detailing the morning habits of billionaires and social media memes that insist that waking up a little earlier is the only thing standing between you and financial freedom.
I had a client recently ask me this question: "How can we maintain our standard of excellence if our employees want to work less?" I replied by asking why they were automatically assuming that excellence is linked to working more.
These narratives are tricky and embedded into how our society talks about success. "Going above and beyond" is the perfect example work devotion culture in practice. Doing your job (let's assume at an excellent and professional quality) is not enough—you must be ready to sacrifice your personal life, free time and relationships on the altar of productivity to prove to your boss that you're a committed team player deserving of advancement. It's no longer about the work itself, it's how much of yourself you're willing to give.
Move or Be Moved
We're overworked. We're burned out. We're continuing to use productivity systems that were never designed for people or the planet. Just like human beings were never designed to work without rest, the planet is not designed to be mined, fished, drained and depleted without having a chance to replenish itself. Something needs to change.
Leaders who are unwilling or unable to take immediate and urgent action should step aside instead of blocking the next generation from determining their own futures.
"Young people should have more say in the future that they alone inhabit," writes Conor Friederdorf in The Atlantic, warning about the dangers of gerontocracy, where aging leaders delay that natural demographic transfer of power to the next generation. He cites countries like the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, China and Russia that are all currently governed by people older than 65.
Economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb recently said, "You never cure structural defects. The system corrects itself by collapsing." Summer 2022 was a nightmarish preview of what that collapse might look like. Record-breaking temperatures, catastrophic flooding and droughts impacted global markets, crops, exports and working conditions. The ongoing debate around return-to-office, hybrid work and quiet quitting are also signaling a profound renegotiation of the role of work in our lives.
Change is coming soon—whether by choice or by force.
It's too late for ESG. What we need now is to be brave enough to play a new game and to measure the things that matter, like our capacity to collectively restore and safeguard the planet for future generations. The environmental crisis, the work crisis and the pandemic are fundamentally also a crisis of imagination. We need leadership that is willing to rewrite the rules of work and business to encompass regeneration instead of mere sustainability.
Vision requires a state of creativity, something that cannot be achieved when operating in constant depletion. It's time we rethink our strategies in how we can create companies that have regenerative ambition as a core operating principle. Let's protect and replenish our creativity because the world needs it now more than ever.
Rahaf Harfoush is the executive director of the Red Thread Institute of Digital Culture. She teaches "Innovation & Emerging Business Models" at Sciences Politique's School of Management and Innovation in Paris. She is a New York Times best-selling author, and her most recent book is Hustle & Float: Reclaim Your Creativity and Thrive in a World Obsessed with Work.