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I was intrigued by an article in The Guardian, in November 2023, where they were talking about how work has conquered every day of the week and how do we remain human in a world that worships toil? This is a particular challenge as we get older, when we recognise that our capacity to provide the same level of activity and, our desire to provide the same level of activity, can be significantly diminished. Yet if we are in a culture which sees the only relationship you can have with an employer as being fully owned by that employer then it becomes very difficult to transition away into a work style that can suit us as we get older.

Cliff Edge Retirement?

Are you threatened with a cliff edge retirement? You suddenly stop working and end up within a vacuum where there’s nothing meaningful for you to do. At some magic age you are no longer in work, whether it’s the statutory retirement age, or something else that happens and yet you have been infected with this worship of toil. How should you respond? Do you lose your whole identity because you’re no longer working? Do you replace the worship of toil for employers with the worship of toil in charity work or for your family? Or do you recognise that this is a wake-up call, where you can now step out of a world of toil and create the opportunity to have more joy, more freedom in your life?

Addicted to toil

Toil can be addictive. Workaholism is a recognised condition – an unhelpful dependence on people, places or things. As you get older what do you do? Do you seek to keep yourself fit enough to continue to toil? Or do you recognise that your friends, family, body, mind and soul are giving you warning indicators that you need to make a different kind of choice? In a world in which both organisations and wider culture worship toil, how do you equip yourself to believe you’re more than just the toil that you submit to in your working life?

Part of this is radically shifting your mindset before the systems that you rely on breakdown. Part of it is seeking while you’re still in work to challenge the culture of toil so that when you come to a point where full-time, or more than full-time work is no longer acceptable for you, you can shift.

Four-day week or home working?

It’s interesting to hear the debate about the four-day working week. The four-day week movement seeks to get the same level of productivity and the same level of income in four days rather than five. So now you shift from a situation where you’re working five days a week to working four days a week. But does that really address the culture of toil? In some examples of moving to a four- day week working you have to work on those four days even more intensively. You sacrifice your lunch breaks. You sacrifice your comfort breaks. You are required to toil harder. I recently met a lady who had a very senior role in the administration of parliament. She said that, although they have home working, when they’re in the office they have back-to-back meetings from 8 o’clock in the morning until 6 o’clock at night, without a single break. So yes, when they’re at home, they might have more freedom, but at work the culture of toil continues to be propagated.

Ageism and Toil

Does the culture of toil and the worship of toil reinforce ageism? Absolutely. I believe that this culture reinforces the failure to accommodate people of different ages and to make reasonable adjustments for people who are no longer able to work 60 or 70 hours week.

Worshiping toil is ageism. It discriminates against people on the basis of age.

The Source of Toil

In the past, you might have associated toil with poverty. You might expect that poverty to arise from unequal relationships of economic power. The single parent working three jobs at minimum wage to pay for rent and childcare illustrates this source.

However, this doesn’t explain why well-paid professionals have bought into a culture of toil. Whether they are doctors, lawyers, consultants, bankers, schoolteachers or IT professionals, too often they accept working conditions where long hours and meaningless activities dominate their working lives.

I suggest there are three sources of this shift to toil:

Production line thinking

As the skilled craftsman was replaced by less skilled factory workers, work was atomised into short, simple, repetitive activities. Whether on the production lines of Henry Ford in Chicago or the workshops of nail makers in the slums of London, workers lost opportunity to take responsibility for a completed work piece. Today, the same approach is applied to takeaway kitchens at Dominoes Pizza. An endless production line forces individual workers to repeat the same atomic task for a whole shift. No longer the craft skill of a chef who makes the dough, hand shapes the pizza, selects the toppings, finds the best spot in a wood fired oven and brings it out at precisely the right moment to place in front of the salivating customer. Craft becomes toil.


When I went to school, my teachers were trusted to conduct their classes however they saw fit. The slight eccentric language teacher who celebrated class performance by inviting us to solve Times cryptic crossword clues, the enthusiastic English teacher who happily promoted hell-fire religion were only judged by their results. The inspirational maths teacher who taught us to solve Boolean logic problems with panels of light switches and coloured electric wire connections: each was trusted to teach by the headteacher. Exams every term, helped to monitor comparative progress of each pupil and individual end of term reports were prepared by every teacher for every class they taught.

As I understand the teaching profession today, they are endlessly monitored and constrained by both systems and measurement. Without warning, Ofsted inspectors can arrive and demand to see the detailed lesson plans, records of pupil development, policies, procedures, attendance and curriculum compliance. This creates an enormous additional workload for the teaching profession and they are no longer trusted to do the best for the children. Now the opportunity for creativity they might bring to an inspirational or challenging learning experience, is, too often, undermined by exhaustion and the risks of non-compliance.

This culture of managerialism: removing trust, judgement and autonomy from the working practice of professionals can destroy the sense of vocation and excitement that creates freedom and joy and replaces it with something more akin to slavery and toil.


Since the Thatcher era, celebration of self-made personal success has empowered more people than ever before to believe that anything can be achieved with hard work. Margaret Thatcher herself, famously survived with very little sleep and covered an enormous workload. Even the late Queen Elizabeth II died with red boxes of state papers at hand. More recently, the mythology of successful entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk (who grabbed naps sleeping on the factory floor) and start-up founders working 120-hour weeks has propagated long hours from the board room downwards. The promise creating the next unicorn business (a valuation of more than $1billion) has driven people to extraordinary behaviours and to requiring the same of others.

Toil, Ageism and humanity

There are some encouraging signs that some workers are resisting the worship of toil. Remote working, part-time working and more choices in an employee led job market are beginning to turn the tide. However, it will only be through the implementation of effective anti-ageism equality policies that toil will become unacceptable. Until this happens, we will continue to diminish the humanity of each and every one of us.


Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.