Work-Life Balance:
it’s a generational thing


Shawn Murphy’s article Why You Shouldn’t Pursue Work-Life Balance that featured in Inc. last Wednesday (23 December) highlighting the false choices we make in the either/or dichotomy of work-life balance, reminded me of a lunch and learn presentation I attended recently on the subject. Picture the scenario – a senior (male, early sixties) C-Suite leader is speedily navigating through a standard slidepack on work-life balance that he and other C-Suite leaders have been presenting all week. A crowd of disengaged looking office workers are nibbling sandwiches and discreetly checking messages on their smartphones. He came to a slide which defined work-life balance as the state of equilibrium between the demands of work/career versus the right for an employee to have a satisfying personal life outside of the business environment. A hand shot up and a young twenty-something audience member interrupted his flow with a question: “What if your work gives you so much pleasure that you enjoy working during your personal life?” He looked at her blankly. “I’m with you there,” somebody else piped up. “Sometimes I get all my best ideas at two in the morning.” The C-Suite executive looked dourly at them and said, “I´ll be taking questions at the end” and clicked the next slide. That killed that.

Let´s be clear, work-life balance, which seeks to put structure and policy around productivity, is a generational thing. The baby boomer generation (aged between fifty and retirement) grew up and campaigned for social and minority rights; their generation legislated for the right of the individual. They have been enthusiasts of work-life-balance since its inauguration in the eighties; now they occupy C-Suite, it seems to have turned into an obsession.

Enter the new generation of workers… They don’t see the relevance or value of the “static” dichotomous work-life balance principle. As Dave Ulrich (HR magazine calls him the “Father of Modern Human Resources”) says “Millennials often want to find a life-work (not work-life) balance. Work is not just about performing tasks, but about finding meaning”. The boundaries also become blurred with their relation to technology; these digital natives instinctively see technology as an enabler that liberates them from office ties. This 24/7 global generation who have had more exposure to self-paced learning than any other generation, don’t want work-life balance. As Deirdre Maloney observes  in Why We All Need to Give Up on Work-Life Balance Once and for All, they want the freedom to choose when to be productive; and therein lies the problem of work-life balance for this generation – it has presentism at its core. Being seen during office hours gives you the right to be left alone when the night staff are vacuuming the corridors. The new generation don´t do presentism, as Ulrich reflects, they are into meaning.

Work-life balance has always been a righteous baby boomer crusade, one that the independent and adaptive generation X never adopted and one that generation Y see as outdated and irrelevant. As the baby boomers reluctantly relinquish power of the C-Suite and gen X and Y supersede them, the idea of creating unachievable and impeding rules and polices around productivity will doubtless also be pensioned off.

by Ric Kelly PhD