IMAGINE having plenty free time without money worries. Imagine having a working week that leaves you with enough mental energy not just to coast along but to make beautiful things. Sounds pretty nice, right?

Eileen Myles chatting to the New Yorker’s Paul Muldoon. They’re poets, talking about the quasi-magical late 70s East Village. A time when young creatives concerned themselves with living and absorbing life, spitting it back out in verse. “Everyone had so much time because everything was so cheap.” Time. Cheap. Both utterly alien concepts. They seem not just to belong to another time, but to some other world — some universe — beyond ours. Can anyone today imagine that sort of existence? I think that’s what we refer to as the mythical “work/life balance”. A reality we’re all supposed to strive for, a unicorn cookie-cuttered from some fantasy world not resembling ours.

There was a headline in The Guardian yesterday about the part-time working revolution. It seems almost glamorous, though feels light years away from the reality. Most people seem to fall into two camps: the chronically overworked and those who can’t get enough.

I can never contain a derisory snort when I read about “balance”. I’m lucky, I know. I can pay my bills. I’ve got work. But it’s not neatly bounded by the supposes perimeter of office hours. Emails eat up mornings, they spill out into evenings and weekends, planning the week ahead swallows Sunday night. I’m lucky to have money in the bank when so many others don’t, but I can’t help but feel utterly spent by the demands of ballooning work. And I’m not alone.

In the Labour Force Survey 2014/2015, 40 per cent of UK people described their stress level as so high it was making them sick. More than 10 million days are lost to stress each year, costing more than £6.5 billion to the economy. Most of us know someone who’s been signed off with stress. And we don’t raise our eyebrows at it either, we all just know how it is. Work is taking over our lives. And as long as costs keep rising while wages stagnate, making the future look increasingly bleak, the idea of doing less is a tantalising but utterly unrealistic aim for all but a few.

I’ve worried about money before, about getting from month to month, but this is the first year I’ve really started fretting about the future. With colleagues retiring, enjoying the fruits of soaring pension values and homes bought long ago, it’s impossible not to benchmark yourself and think about where you’re headed.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out my generation is way behind, and the likelihood of ever catching up grows infinitesimally smaller with each passing year. This fear was compounded when I was recently elbowed into doing some mental calculations over breakfast by Radio 4’s Money Box. It spelled out how little an average personal pension is worth on retirement, which was enough to make me down fork and fret for the rest of the morning.

To summarise: a general rule of thumb is to have two-thirds of what you earn saved for each year of retirement. Oh, and this is based on the assumption that you’ve a) bought an affordable home and b) paid your mortgage off. To have even £3000 a year to last from retirement until ... well ... you know ... you’re going to need at least £75,000. Are you panicking yet?

THE idea of part-time work being a luxury is insulting to young people experiencing the collective weltschmerz of our economic reality. I know master graduates in minimum-wage retail jobs. PhDs who live in flatshares. Just getting a job that pays enough to live on is a struggle for many. We can’t afford work-life balance.

Instead of thinking about how I can work “smarter” (less seems to have connotations of fecklessness) I’m trying to figure out how to engineer more work into my life. We have to. We’ve got to attenuate for the rising cost of living, the stagnating of wages, the suckerpunch of Brexit and the increasingly distant state pension age. When my mortgage advisor recently asked me about when I planned to retire, I paused for a moment, and answered a fully unironic “never”.

Who are these people luxuriating in leisure? Who is privileged enough to enjoy the full voluptuousness of free time? I’ve been on workplace wellbeing courses that espouse the virtues of tai chi, yoga and meditation. And while nice on paper, they don’t do enough in practice. If I want to squeeze in some mindfulness, or a stress-busting sun salutation, you know what I have to do? Get up 5.30am. That’s shipping forecast hour. And you know what’s not good for my health and wellbeing? Getting up at 5.30am when I didn’t make it to bed till midnight.

It’s too much of a leap to imagine time being truly free, when the necessity of work and earning enough demands your time, your energy, your attention. How many of us eat our lunch at our desks? How many really leave the office when we leave? How many times do we check emails on weekends, answer calls on holiday? There’s no balancing, just endless plate spinning.

But you have flexible working. It’s the law! You could go down to four days a week! You can compress your hours!

Sure, there are undoubtedly some for whom that sort of trade-off works. I know people who would definitely save money in childcare by working less. But what are the penalties for these sorts of trade-offs? This is already a risky little manoeuvre for women who are routinely penalised for taking breaks to start a family. We’ve all got to lean in, even if it’s making us ill.

Working less is a nice idea. But unless you’re one of a privileged few, you’ll need to find some other way to deflect the stress. Work/life balance – a thoroughly modern myth.