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The myth of ‘work-life balance’ is a generational illusion

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The myth of ‘work-life balance’ is a generational illusion


The term work-life balance didn’t come into popular use until 1986. While still in use, it no longer fits today’s circumstances. But before we redefine it, we first need to examine the evolution of work and working.

The rise and fall of the company man

Following World War II, soldiers came home to a “revitalized” United States. For the next 30 years, the United States enjoyed economic expansion. This period was named the Great Compression: economic expansion coupled with social welfare initiatives, and strong, healthy unions flattened wage differentials, pulling everyone towards the middle.

When a young person entered the workplace, they became a “Company Man,” whose career culminated in a pension after many years of service. It was an unwritten covenant between employer and employee.

You were unlikely to broach the notion of work-life balance. It would have been seen as an indication you were not serious about your job and not committed to the organization.

Gen X and the beginning of the transactional workplace

Things started to change in the mid 70s. It was the beginning of the end of the covenant. As children, Gen Xers witnessed the downsizing and euphemistic “right-sizing” that their parents endured.

Many took the lesson to heart and, as adults, knew that they couldn’t rely on a single company to take care of them. Rather than selling their skills to legacy companies, they used their expertise to establish their own companies, which gave birth to the dot-com boom.

The dot-com workplaces were typically less formal, more egalitarian, and experimental in nature. Clever young people worked out new ways to leverage technology to reimagine how work–and the workplace–should look. Demands for more work-life balance that workers had not been able to make under the covenant were first implemented by Gen X entrepreneurs.

Millennials move the needle

Gen Xers recognized the difficulty in balancing work with a personal life, while still expecting to succeed professionally. Work still had to come first. The best they could hope to do was build a workplace that had enough flexibility to allow for shifting priorities and needs in one’s personal life.

The Millennial mindset is different. It can be described as work-life integration. This, too, should not be mistaken for balance. Millennials are not doing a better job of balancing their personal lives with work than Gen Xers have. Rather, they have worked to integrate work into their personal lives, breaking down the walls between professional and personal.

Many Millennials are crafting careers in the gig economy and pursuing part time or flexible work arrangements. This is sometimes out of necessity, but for others, it is an elective lifestyle choice.  Moreover, they are taking on multiple roles to explore different paths in pursuit of finding their purpose.

Millennial knowledge workers have even more portable skill sets than their Gen X predecessors. They have more leverage in the transactional labor market than any previous generation. They are, in a sense, transactional “natives,” whereas those who came before were transactional “immigrants” who had to adapt to the new labor market.

Gen Z and the coming work-life options

While the Gen Z identity is still developing, there seems to be continuity of many of the trends observed with Millennials. Like the Millennials, they never knew the unbroken covenant and have never expected employers to take care of them for life. However, they also understand that societal safety nets are in a precarious state. Not only can Gen Zers not expect a pension, but they also can’t be certain that Medicare and Social Security will be there when they retire.

This reserved and practical outlook colors how Gen Zers fit work into their lives. They are moving beyond work-life integration and pursuing what I would call work-life options. They appear to strongly value employment stability, and like the Millennial cohort, they are very interested in establishing a career with firms that offer professional growth and development.

They use their free time to pursue interests that might someday become careers. Gen Z, unlike Millennials, aren’t pursuing multiple jobs in order to engage their passions or find their purpose. They are pursuing stable careers while cultivating side projects that could one day become revenue streams. These are often described as “side hustles.” Their aspirations veer toward the practical.

A myth retired

So, will the notion of work-life balance continue to evolve? Probably. Unless workers receive what they really wanted all along: autonomy and control over their lives so they can make meaningful decisions about the work they do, how it is done, and how to achieve the mastery to do it well.

If companies fulfill these requests and understand and respect employees’ motivations, work-life balance will no longer be a battle between work and the rest of life. It never really was. Workers just want to best accommodate, integrate, balance—whatever word you want to use—work into their lives.

The work-life dichotomy was always misleading. We need to move beyond the notion that work is simply the thing we do for a paycheck, and “life” merely the momentary reprieves between showing up at the office. Work, when it engages us, is life-affirming

Chris DeSantis is an independent organizational behavior practitioner, speaker, podcaster, and the author of Why I Find You Irritating: Navigating Generational Friction at Work.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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