It’s Time to Rethink Work-Life Balance
The dated concept hasn’t evolved for the digital age
Work-life balance is a myth.
The version millennials have been sold — the mythical 50/50 split between our professional and personal lives — is positioned as a sort of North Star. But like most North Stars, it remains out of reach, not because of its high degree of difficulty, but because it isn’t based in a modern reality.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, work-life balance is “the amount of time you spend doing your job compared with the amount of time you spend with your family and doing things you enjoy.” Essentially, it’s the belief that our lives only have two facets and those two facets should remain separate, like church and state. Work-life balance suggests that every person’s life can be split into two neat halves; it assumes that the way we spend our time is easily quantifiable, that each of us possesses the surgical precision necessary to slice work out of the rest of our lives.
But in an increasingly connected digital world, dividing your life and priorities symmetrically is a messy, and frankly impossible, task. It might be easier to leave them entangled rather than exhaust yourself pulling them apart.
Amazon head honcho Jeff Bezos wants to rebrand work-life balance as “work life harmony”. Other experts suggest calling it “work-life blend”. Though neither of these new names has caught on, the attempt to rethink work-life balance makes one thing clear — work and life are intrinsically intertwined. And thus, the cultural conversation needs to shift to reflect this.
This isn’t to say that work-life balance, whatever it is, doesn’t have its benefits. Research shows that workplaces that encourage a healthy balance have more productive workforces. And balance helps workers avoid burnout and stress-related illnesses. But who says we can’t still reap those benefits of work-life balance if we change the definition?
My Baby Boomer parents viewed work more rigidly; their days were tightly scheduled and 5 p.m. was the non-negotiable cutoff. If they had to stay late or take a call afterhours, it sent a major ripple through the household. But for me — a freelancer with several clients dispersed across different time zones — I find myself answering emails at 9 or 10 p.m. because it’s the only way to move a project forward. And I don’t feel that a few late night emails have ruined my quality of life.
The professional world that I entered post-college was nothing like the one my parents had belonged to for decades. Yet our collective understanding of work-life balance was the same, which is a huge disservice to modern workers.
The 50/50 split doesn’t take into account how the demands of work have morphed over time, and it doesn’t acknowledge that our priorities shift over time as well. Work-life balance is a phrase that treats all professionals as a monolithic entity. It suggests that each of us wants to “have it all” and that we can do it in the same way. It doesn’t leave room for the marketing manager who has to join 10 p.m. conference calls with clients in China; it doesn’t leave room for the mom of three who can only work on her novel at midnight, after everyone has gone to bed; it doesn’t leave room for the passionate employee who loves work and doesn’t mind putting in 12-hour days.
Work-life balance, as most of us know it, is a fantasy — one that discourages individuality and creativity. It favors a uniform, cookie cutter life over a unique one, and that could be more harmful than most of us realize.
Quite often, a messy life can be an inspiring one. A 2013 report from The New York Times shared the results of a study in which researchers examined the link between creativity and mess. Some subjects were placed in a neat, clean room while others were placed in a messy room; all were asked to dream up new uses for Ping-Pong balls. The subjects in the messy room had more creative answers and, at that, produced five times as many “highly creative” responses as their counterparts in the tidy room.
The study showed that organizational chaos led to more creativity. But work-life balance encourages a tidiness in our lives. It’s safe and predictable, and to achieve it, we’re motivated more by fulfilling schedule obligations versus fulfilling our happiness. This isn’t to suggest that each of us would benefit from tossing our schedules out the window; most people have responsibilities that demand at least some organization. However, allowing different parts of our lives to intersect could produce some inspiring results.
When it comes to work-life balance, it’s important to realize that no two lives are the same. Thus, it’s impossible to apply a single lifestyle standard to every one of these wildly different lives. The new work-life balance isn’t about some uniform dissection of your life. It’s not about pretending that work stops once you step outside of the office. It’s about finding a balance that’s applicable to your world. The split you observe could look very different from a co-worker’s. It might be a 70/30 split, tipped in favor of work. Or 60/40, in favor of life and love.
Whatever balance you choose, however neat or lopsided, recognize it as your balance. It’s the key to living the life you want to live instead of the one that has been prescribed for you since you were a child.