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As we struggle to achieve parity between the job and personal time, we must understand that there are no cookie-cutter solutions
A farmer circa 1900 certainly would not have understood today's concept of work/life "balance." For him, farming was work, and farming was life. Today much has changed, but the impossibility of separating work and life hasn't. While employers and employees alike regularly struggle to achieve parity between the job and home, the truth is that life is composed of goals and choices. With that in mind, we must embrace work and life as one and the same, and determine what is appropriate for each individual situation.
The idea of work/life balance is further complicated by the fact that the U.S. workforce is culturally diverse and made up of different generations, each with its own set of priorities. Additionally, businesses are in various stages of their own life cycles: startup, high growth, mature, and downsizing. Instead of looking for a generic, standardized concept of work/life balance, we should understand that it is the combination of these variables that defines what the balance is—and what it should be.
It's important to note that companies that are great places to work consistently outperform those that don't value employees. Companies that make poor business decisions without considering the diverse needs of their workers consistently underperform the competition. Therefore, realistic expectations need to be set by employers and employees, based on the context of what needs to be achieved and who is performing the work.
Talkin' 'Bout My Generation
Work/life balance has entered the minds of the current workforce in very different ways, and each generation has its own needs that must be considered. Baby boomers are more likely to be contemplating second careers instead of retirement. Generation X is entering midcareer, while members of Gen Y are just starting out in the workforce. Plus, there are plenty of mature, traditionalist workers interested in staying employed for such diverse reasons as improved health, increased life span, or financial security.
The mature worker (age 55-plus) wants to continue to contribute; this group often possesses the most knowledge about the organization and has the greatest amount of experience. At this point, they are most likely either career-focused and working on projects, or enjoying their ability to give back to the community during brief sabbaticals from the workplace. Complete retirement, as their parents might have considered, is usually not an option, because longer life spans are leading to second and even third careers with the aim of finding new challenges and maintaining a certain standard of living.
The midcareer baby boomers are finishing putting their Generation X children through college and have been working through one of the most robust periods of economic growth ever. However, after witnessing rounds of corporate downsizing and job cuts, this group is reluctant to request time off; they want to stay employed and hang on to a good thing. Yet, they are beginning to evaluate their life's accomplishments and are going to want to give back to society or maybe even start their own companies.
Flexibility Is Key
Members of Generation X get a bad rap for not being loyal to their companies and putting themselves first. If your childhood consisted of seeing your parents downsized, maybe repeatedly, you would probably have a similar tendency to look out for No. 1. Members of this group are most likely having a first child, buying the first house, and need time and accommodations to digest these life-changing events. In addition, this generation often has both parents working, and single parents are common, so the need for flexibility is greater than for previous generations.
Finally, the youngest group in the workforce is Generation Y. This group never knew a time without a computer, cable TV, or video games. Due to safety concerns, childhood probably consisted of organized sports instead of running around the neighborhood. The youngest children of the baby boomers, they were the benefactors of their parents' economic prosperity. Why would you leave home if you couldn't replicate your current lifestyle? This generation is more loyal to parents and "tribe" than to an employer.
The varying needs of the workforce can be addressed through technology, flexible scheduling, mentoring programs, encouraging wandering employees to "boomerang" back, and building a culture that appreciates diversity. You cannot please everybody all of the time, but you can increase your odds of satisfaction by adding context to work and understanding the motivation behind the people doing the job. Regardless of their generation, workers are trying to strike a balance in their own personal situations, and businesses are trying to prioritize their own goals and needs. The division of work and life is arbitrary: The solution is to put the two back together. The goal is for a meaningful life, not a battle between good and evil or life against work. The farmer of 100 years ago understood: Farming is life. Work is life. Life is work.