The importance of “work-life balance” is something of a shibboleth to those of us who talk and write about psychologically healthy work environments, and on numerous occasions I’ve made blithe references to it. But at times, I find myself questioning whether this is an unattainable and sometimes wrongheaded ideal — at least as applied to individuals.
Parsing the definition
Wikipedia (link here) defines work-life balance as:
a broad concept including proper prioritizing between “work” (career and ambition) on one hand and “life” (Health, pleasure, leisure, family and spiritual development) on the other.
The mere use of the word “balance” leads us to a debate that cannot be resolved. How do we apportion our time among these categories? Is it 50/50, 30/70, or 60/40?
And how do we define “work”? For example, “family” usually is placed in the “life” side of the ledger. But I doubt that a parent taking care of kids equates family responsibilities with leisure! For many, it’s physically and emotionally demanding work.
Time at work
Beyond the definitional nitpicking, I get the general idea: We spend a lot of time at work, especially in America. Economist Juliet Schor brought this issue into our contemporary policy debates in her 1993 book, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, marshaling data showing that U.S. workers spend a lot more time at work than counterparts in other nations.
So, in questioning the concept of work-life balance, I agree that things in America (and elsewhere!) are out of, umm, balance.
“I want it all”
But implicit in the notion of work-life balance is the idea that we can have it all, if only we can find the elusive formula for fitting the pieces together in the right way.
The YouTube video pasted into this article — from the Broadway show “Babe” — captures that wishful thinking. Three women of different ages and life circumstances meet by chance in a doctor’s office, and they share with each other how they want it all.
But most of us can’t
Way back in 1985, Norman Redlich, the dean of NYU Law School, referenced those Broadway lyrics in his remarks at our graduation convocation. His message: It sounds great, but most of us can’t have it all. There are choices to make and realities to navigate in a life that moves all too quickly.
So there we were, sitting among family and friends in beautiful Carnegie Hall, thinking that the world is our oyster, and the dean is telling us it’s probably not.
It’s one of the few useful pieces of advice I’ve heard among a sea of mostly banal, forgettable remarks at graduation ceremonies.
Many women, especially, have understood the impossibility — or at least the unlikelihood — of having all of life’s pieces conveniently coming together at the right places and right times.
Instead of chasing such an elusive goal, I suggest that we all redirect our focus to qualitative questions of what makes for a good and meaningful life, while remaining aware that choices and events may constrict our flexibility.
For some, that meaningful life may be grounded in raising a family or pursuing an avocation. For others, it may mean devotion to a career or a cause. For lots, it will involve a perpetual juggling act. A fortunate few may achieve a zen-like blend that allows them to check all the boxes. And still others may find meaning in overcoming significant personal or family challenges.
“She lived a balanced life”
Ultimately, aren’t we — and the world — better off for having made a positive difference in some way? You know, like starting a company, raising a family, helping those in need, contributing to the community, or inventing or creating or making or fixing something?
As I see it, work-life balance should remain a priority for employment relations, but when it comes to individual lives, we need to embrace a much deeper set of questions. After all, does anyone really want to be remembered for having “lived a balanced life”?
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June 11 update: In a sad coincidence, Dean Redlich died this week. His obituary, which details his rich life and career, can be read here.