We come from a generation of ‘hustlers,’ who live to work. They boast about grinding it out: working harder than the next, sleeping less hours, raising earlier to catch that worm. They Instagram and TikTok about their work regimen and can’t understand why anyone would be attracted to “quiet quitting.” Then there are those of this generation who work only to live the life Instagram fabricates. They collect their paycheck and take it to Miami, Atlanta or Paris or Madrid, where they flood social media with images of all the experiences their hard-earned cash bought them. And some are embracing the “soft life.”
But Nia Pearl (not her real name) is part of a new mindset, who are out here just living to live.
Life has changed a lot in the last two years, and many people are embracing a so-called soft life — a rejection of the struggle, stress, and anxiety that come with working a traditional nine-to-five career and spinning away your days on life’s hamster wheel. Instead, living the soft life is about throwing yourself into joy, and prioritizing the richness of experiences.
In the midst of the pandemic, Pearl was at a crossroads and decided it was time to make a dramatic change. After being laid off from her celebrity public relations job in Los Angeles in spring 2018, she moved to South Africa. She had been earning between $70,000 and $80,000 a year but was overworked, overwhelmed, stressed, disenchanted, and spending very little time with her daughter working for something that didn’t mean much to her anymore.
“Once Trump was elected, I was over all this celebrity worship,” Pearl told BLAC.
She lost her job on a Friday, booked a flight 28 days later and by the end of the summer she was sitting in a 2-bedroom 4th floor apartment overlooking the luscrious trees of Johannasburg. She needed something different, to appreciate America again.
Pearl, 31, splits her time between Detroit and JBurg nowadays. She’s able to do so without spending more than $1,000 a month for rent in either city. When in Detroit she primarily rents places via Airbnb or stays with family and friends, and she shares an apartment with a roommate in Johanesburg.
“Money comes and money goes, and when I need money, I’m able to secure short term projects, convenient work-when-I-want situations, so I don’t let it stress me,” Pearl says. Since losing her job in 2020, she’s developed a sort of work-at-will freelance career doing marketing and social media content creation and posting. “There are plenty of ways to make money, and I give myself credit for developing a diverse enough set of skills over the years in business, content creation, customer service, organization, and more to make that happen.”
A Shift Away From Traditional Success
It takes having “an existential conversation” with yourself before reaching the point of pursuing a soft life, says New York University sociology professor Deirdre Royster. The pandemic fast-tracked a lot of those conversations, but life and what people value was shifting even before everything shut down.
The script for a “good American life,” for “the American Dream,” has been completely flipped, Royster says. No longer is it simply a family of four settling down in the suburbs with the tidy home and a white picket fence. Royster herself, a tenured professor at New York University, found herself pursuing a whim during the pandemic to follow her passion for interior design. She applied to the Pratt Institute and was granted a partial scholarship.
“In the ’80s people asked: ‘How do we maximize?’ But now people are asking, ‘What’s the minimal amount I need to live a sustainable life?’ I love that idea,” Royster says.
Pearl is like many individuals who used the pandemic as an opportunity to disrupt their lives. The collective trauma of this worldwide tragedy allowed some to pump the brakes, turn into the skid, and realize that perhaps there was something more important in their lives than the stressing over whether they were living for their job hard enough.
“Quiet quitting” — the internet’s favorite workforce term of the moment — its distant cousin, “lying flat,” and “soft life” have all popped up as symptoms of a shift away from the traditional expectations of what it looks like to be successful in America. Living a soft life doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have a job, it just means your job is not your whole world.
The Rise of The ‘Soft Life’
The term “soft life” really picked up some steam among Black women earlier this year. The cottage industry of advice, lifestyle hacks, and femininity within the YouTube vlogosphere is littered with videos like “How To Live Your Best Soft Life,” “How I Created a Softer Life for Myself,” and “The Truth About the ‘Soft’ Life.” All are geared toward Black women.
“I feel like I’ve stepped into my era of living a soft life,” creator Courtney Daniella Boateng says in a video about the hard work that goes into living a soft life. “I’ve really invested in slowing down and detaching my self-worth or my productivity from these ideas of high levels of stress and just struggle.”
But many of these creators are painting a very opulent picture of the #softlife: more a Kenya Barris “Black-ish” era version.
“Soft life, in the way that it’s portrayed online, can often look like luxury and true levels of enjoyment,” says Boateng in the video. “However, there is a reality to living a soft life, which everyone in the real world needs to be exposed to, such as, you need to work, you need to make money. Life is not always roses.”