Married to the job: how a long-hours working culture keeps people single and lonely

Sarah Jaffe
·13 min read
<span>Composite: Getty/Guardian Design/Getty</span>
Composite: Getty/Guardian Design/Getty

Laura Hancock started practising yoga when she worked for a charity. It was a job that involved long hours and caused a lot of anxiety. Yoga was her counterbalance. “It saved my life, in a way,” she says.

Yoga brought her a sense of peace and started her journey of self-inquiry; eventually, she decided to bring those benefits to others by becoming a yoga teacher. She studied for more than eight years before qualifying. That was about 10 years ago; since then, she has been teaching in Oxford, her home town.

At first, the work felt like a privilege, even though she was working a lot and not earning much. “There was a sense that, if you gave it your all and you did it with integrity and love and all those things, then it would eventually work out for you.”

But recently she had a moment of realisation. “I can’t afford my rent, I have no savings, I have no partner, I have no family. I’m 38 and most of my friends have families; they’re buying houses,” she says. “There is a lot of grief around that. I feel like I’ve just landed on Earth, like a hard crash on to the ground, and am looking around and feeling quite lonely.”

In many sectors, offices have been designed to look, feel and act like a home, to keep employees there for longer

Hancock is one of the many people in recent years to recognise that they have devoted themselves to their work and neglected everything else that might give their life meaning. For workers across many sectors, long, irregular hours, emotional demands and sometimes low rates of pay mean it is increasingly hard to have a life outside of work – and particularly hard to sustain relationships.

Long before Covid locked us all in our homes, alone or otherwise, the evidence was pointing out repeatedly that loneliness and singledom are endemic in this phase of capitalism. Fewer people are marrying and those who are are doing so later; we are having less sex. A 2018 study found that 2.4 million adults in Britain “suffer from chronic loneliness”. Another projection found that nearly one in seven people in the UK could be living alone by 2039 and that those living alone are less financially secure.

For Hancock, turning her yoga practice into her career meant giving up much of her social life. She was “knackered” at the end of a long day of practice and teaching – and the expectation that she would continue her education through pricey retreats meant, at times, that she was spending more than she was making. It was at the end of a four-hour workshop in a local church in 2018 that the penny dropped. A student came up to her and said: “You are not well. We need to go to the doctor.”

Illustration
Illustration

Her GP found infections in her ear and her chest. She spent seven weeks recovering in bed, which gave her a lot of time, alone at home, to reconsider her career and face the reality of exactly how vulnerable she was.

Lauren Smith*, 34, a teacher in the west of England, was given a warning by a colleague before she applied for her postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE). “It’s going to be the most intense year of your life,” they said. At the time, she thought she was ready for it, but it took its toll on her relationship. “I remember coming home and just … not even being able to talk to him.”

Things did not improve when she started working as a teacher. “There’s this culture in education where it’s almost competitive about how much you work,” she says. The social relationships at school become almost a substitute for a personal life; she briefly dated another teacher. However, apart from “the odd fling here or there”, she says, “in terms of actually dating, I find that my enthusiasm or my energy for it …” She trails off.

The strain on their personal lives has made Smith and Hancock look much more closely at the sustainability of their working lives. Hancock is one of the founding members of the new yoga teachers’ union, a branch of the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), the union representing gig economy workers and those in traditionally non-unionised workplaces. Smith is active in the National Education Union, but is considering a career change. “The demands on teachers have just increased so much and, with the funding cuts, I’m now doing the job of three people,” she says.

“Everything else you love about your job has been pushed to the wayside and it’s all about those exam results,” says Smith. The number one thing she would like “would be more planning time in my job. Maybe I could have one less class, which is 30 kids’ worth of data that I don’t have to do and it means I can put my mental energy into the students themselves and have the time and the headspace to do other things.”

The well-off are more likely to marry and have more stable families

It is not that she is hanging everything on the hope of a romantic relationship – and she does not want children – but nevertheless Smith longs for time and energy to devote to the people she cares about, rather than her job. “In the nine years that I have been a teacher, it has got harder and harder. If things don’t change, I can’t see myself staying in this job beyond two years from now.”

If work is getting in the way of our relationships, it is not an equally distributed problem. The decline in marriage rates “is a class-based affair”, say the law professors Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, the authors of the book Marriage Markets: How Inequality Is Remaking the American Family. The well-off are more likely to marry and have more stable families – and the advantages of this family structure are conferred on their offspring. For those in a more precarious financial situation, it can often be easier to stay single.

Economic stability provides “a better foundation for loyalty, one based on relationship satisfaction and happiness rather than economic dependency or need”, found the academics Pilar Gonalons-Pons and David Calnitsky when they studied the impact of an experiment with universal basic income in Canada. If we were not so worried about paying the bills, perhaps we would have the time and mental space for better relationships.

In an increasingly atomised world, being in a couple is how most people have access to care and love. The status of being partnerless, or, as the writer Caleb Luna has put it, being “singled” – an active process that means single people are denied affection or care because they are reserved for people in couples – can leave many people without life-sustaining care. As Luna writes, the culture of “self-love”, in which we are encouraged to love, support and sustain ourselves, leaves out those for whom this is not a choice.

Care is overwhelmingly still provided by partners in a romantic couple or other family members: in the UK, 6.5 million people – one in eight adults – provide care for a sick or disabled family member or partner. The charity Carers UK estimates that, during the pandemic in 2020, 13.6 million people were carers. What happens to those, however, without partners or family members to provide care? It becomes someone’s job – a job that can end up placing enormous stress on the personal life of whoever is doing it.

Illustration
Illustration

Care is often outsourced to paid workers – many of whom are immigrants – some of whom have left their own partners and children behind in order to go elsewhere for work, says Prof Laura Briggs, of the women, gender and sexuality studies department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The harsh crackdowns on migration to the US and the UK have left these workers in a uniquely vulnerable position. They would “work for almost any wage, no matter how low, to support family and household members back home, without the entanglements that come with dependents who are physically present, such as being late to work after a child’s doctor’s appointment, say, or the sick days that children or elders have so many of,” wrote Briggs in her 2017 book How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics. In other words, with their family far away, the worker is free to devote all their time – and their care – to their employer.

It is not just care work that is blending the boundaries between people’s work lives and personal lives. In many sectors, offices have been designed to look, feel and act like a home, to keep employees there for longer – with free food available 24/7, areas to rest and play with Lego, office pets, informal dress codes and even showers to create a feeling that work is a “family”.

When I met Karn Bianco while I was researching my book on how work is increasingly taking over our lives, he was a freelance computer game programmer who had tired of the long hours. “Your life became just work,” he said. “You would go in at 9am and would work through until 10 or 11 at night sometimes – you could get an evening meal there.” It was fine for a while, he said. “When I was an intern, I was single, I knew I was only in that desk for a year. I had no responsibilities, no dependents.”

But as Bianco, who is now 31 and living in Glasgow, got older and entered into a relationship, it became impossible to deal with. “I even tried to start coups of sorts,” he said, trying to convince his colleagues to walk out en masse at 5pm on the dot. But it did not take, so he was stuck trying to improve his own conditions, going home at 5pm on his own – something that was possible, he noted, only because he had worked his way up the ladder. Eventually, Bianco went freelance, then left the industry entirely.

Dating apps just feel like another admin task: ‘Ugh, I’ve got to reply to another email now.'

Bianco is one of the founding members of the gaming industry branch of the IWGB, which is fighting the long hours in the sector. Traditionally, there was a crunch time, when, just before a product launch, programmers were expected to put in 100-hour weeks with no extra pay. Now, as games are connected to the internet and consumers expect constant updates, crunch time is pretty much all the time. “They try to instil that feeling of: ‘You have to do this for the family [company],’ rather than: ‘This is a transaction. You pay me and I work,’” said Austin Kelmore, 40, when I met him along with Bianco.

But what happens when the “family” is gone and the workers are left on their own? Layoffs are common in the games industry – so common that one observer created a website to track them. (In 2020, there were an estimated 2,090 job losses as part of mass redundancies in the gaming industry.) When Kelmore was laid off, his partner’s income was a lifesaver, but it made him think: ‘Do I want to do games any more?’ He is still in the industry and active in the union working against what he says is a systematic issue with work-life balance. “Without unions, we had no idea what our rights were,” Bianco says. “We were working illegal hours and didn’t even know it. Most of my time at home during some of those weeks was just sleeping.”

The pandemic, of course, has made many people face up to loneliness in a way they would not have done in the pre-lockdown world. One-third of women and one-fifth of men report feeling lonely or isolated in this period.

Ruth Jones* trained as a librarian in Canada and moved around from job to job – nearly once a year for 14 years. “Finding work, and especially having to take whatever work I can get, has definitely been a factor in why I haven’t dated much at 31,” she says via email. “How do you date someone wholeheartedly knowing that, at some point in a year, max, you’re going to have to make a decision about someone taking or not taking a job, being split up, doing long distance?”

A chronic illness means that, recently, she has been out of the workplace, stuck at home. She has realised the way in which our obsession with work is entangled with our romantic relationships. On dating apps and sites, “most people identify strongly with their jobs”, she says. Where does this leave someone who is unable to work long-term? “At a minimum, I am supposed to feel guilty for being unproductive, useless – and live a frugal, monk-like life,” she says.

Related: Why are increasing numbers of women choosing to be single?

She does not mind that she might not be able physically to do the same things as a potential partner, but she often finds that they do, especially as the apps are designed to pass judgment on people immediately. All of this means it feels impossible to find someone with whom to connect. “I feel like I’m not looking for a unicorn, I’m looking for a gold Pegasus.”

The apps often feel like another job to take on, says Smith. She will click on the dating site, flick through some profiles, maybe match with someone and exchange a couple of messages. Then a week of teaching goes by in a blur and, she says: “You have a look and you’ve missed the boat.” She often ends up deciding to spend her spare time with friends, or catching up on rest. “It just feels like another admin task: ‘Ugh, I’ve got to reply to another email now. I’ve got to put some data into a form.’” And, of course, those dating apps are big business, profiting from workers being kept single by their jobs. A couple of months ago, the founder of the dating app Bumble was lauded as the “world’s youngest self-made woman billionaire”.

Hancock, who works in a deeply solitary industry, has found the process of organising with her union enormously helpful. “I remember being in this room and hearing so many different people from different industries talking and realising that we shared so much,” she says. “I wasn’t alone.”

It is through the union that she hopes to be able to change not just her own situation, but also the industry. After all, as the games workers learned, going home early by yourself – or leaving the industry – might be a temporary solution, but the real challenge is ending the culture of overwork. Perhaps it is time to revisit the original wants of International Workers’ Day, which called for the day to be split into eight-hour chunks: for work, for rest and time for “what we will”, whether that is romance, family, friends or otherwise.

*Names have been changed

Work Won’t Love You Back by Sarah Jaffe is published by Hurst (£20). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply