“Work hard, play harder” is a mantra adopted with a brazen enthusiasm (and pride) in student communities and, later on, professional workplaces across the Western world. In an increasingly secular society, what we worship has less to do with God and more to do with productivity. Many students and corporate high-flyers alike have normalized routine all-nighters and caffeine addiction as a means of survival—because there really is no rest for the wicked in a society that hails both hard work and hard fun (as opposed to soft fun, which would entail lying in bed watching Netflix, sans substances). It’s also important to bear in mind that having the financial, physical, and emotional capacity to play even harder than you work is a luxury only a privileged few can afford.
No doubt we’re all familiar with the image of the corporate high-flyer: working late, straight spirits, office scandals—Mad Men but IRL. It’s the clickety-clack of designer heels down long corridors with big windows, late-night coffee runs, and an expenses budget that’ll cover pretty much all levels of after-work fun. It’s a lifestyle that’s comfortably enveloped in a glossy sheen of power, money, and free champagne. It’s exclusive. Despite us living under alleged meritocracy, such a lifestyle is not available to all; the “work hard, play harder” mantra is top-shelf, behind-the-bar stuff.
The University of Oxford is a classic example of where a heavy workload and high academic demands are met with an intense drinking culture—a special brand of bacchanalian opulence. As undergraduates, we have weekly candlelit formals where copious amounts of food and wine are consumed before we stumble down to the college bar and continue to drink until clubs open. It’s not unusual to encounter students sweating through their formal wear on the dancefloor as they belt out Pulp’s “Common People” with frightening sincerity. I myself have gone clubbing in formal wear, aware that it’s impractical, aware that it’s obnoxious, but still unable to resist being swept up in Oxford’s obsession with a kind of luxury that borders on the ridiculous and just is self-indulgent.
In relation to other British universities, Oxford has the highest number of (known) secret societies—a fact that, in itself, demonstrates how wealth equals impunity equals increased opportunity to play hard. Such societies are also a useful means for the privately educated to distinguish themselves from their state-educated peers. Despite membership dwindling, some of these secret societies, such as The Bullingdon Club, remain in our national psyche. These societies continue to thrive throughout the university, albeit on a smaller scale, and those who participate can expect orgiastic displays of drinking, some pretty shocking sconces (whereby you call out something scandalous and the guilty parties stand up and drink), and—at some point in the night—someone to dump their drink into their shoe and down it. Think Wolf of Wall Street but with British accents, gowns instead of suits, and old instead of new money.
I’ll confess: I’m no innocent bystander amidst Oxford’s debauchery. In my first year, I regularly attended the University Labour Society’s weekly debate. This was an event, appropriately titled Champagne & Socialism, where you paid a £5 fee to drink (pretty much unlimited) prosecco and listen to (mostly privately educated) students quote Karl Marx in impassioned speeches about nationalization, social mobility, and the NHS. I never had the courage to speak at such events, but would sit quietly, sip my prosecco, and listen avidly from the sidelines. This listening and observing defined my first few terms at Oxford; I attended the formals, crew dates, and other social occasions, but without feeling like I was wholly there—it took a while to adjust to these new, more decadent ways of socializing. The same must be true for others who ascend the social ladder and defy class boundaries only to find themselves alienated by those who’ve been networking since they were seven, know exactly which silverware to use with what course, and what to wear for which social occasion. These days, it’s about more than a capacity to work hard; you have to be the right fit—and that means knowing how to play.
I have friends who are more than ready to work insane hours during the week and then go hard during the weekend. It’s a lifestyle. During my teenage years, I was among the hoard of young people willing to sell their soul to the city—to pay time for money and money for hedonism. Then I was diagnosed with a health condition which, if I were to pursue that lifestyle, would make the “live fast die young” mantra a reality. I’ve since thought a lot about where this tendency toward reckless binge-drinking, sex sprees, and drug abuse comes from—particularly in students. Why are we so driven to get blackout drunk post-deadlines, post-exams, post-graduation?
There are elements of self-indulgence in self-destruction, I suppose. Getting absolutely battered/twatted/ruined/binned (whatever your preferred euphemism) after an intense day can be an effective means of getting a much-needed hit of serotonin. The loss of self in a dizzying mass of booze, drugs, music, and sex can be liberating—especially when “losing yourself in a good book” just doesn’t quite cut it. After so many understimulating months of raw ennui, and a whole uni term of working hard but playing little, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss pushing my liver to its limits.
That being said, I’m not sure it’s possible to thrive in an environment which demands 9-5 five days a week, then normalizes the 48-hour bender on the weekend. If lockdown and this pandemic have taught us anything, I hope it’s how to slow down. I hope we come out of this able to work less hard—but more efficiently—and play in a way that doesn’t put our vital organs at risk. Don’t get me wrong, I love a drink, but maybe it’s time to cancel two-pints-a-bottle-of-wine-three-jägerbombs-plus-shots on the average night out. Having a day job so taxing that people have to blow off steam on a mountain of cocaine every weekend shouldn’t be casually accepted as what to expect from the corporate world, or hailed as the lifestyle of the successful. There comes a point when working hard and playing harder is more a cry for help than a flex.
By Alice Garnett
Illustration by Grace Smith