Is Having Work-Life Balance A Path To Mediocrity?

In this week’s edition of “write what scares you,” I want to talk about this tweet.

When I work with 20-somethings, lack of work-life balance is always at the top of the list when it comes to things that need to change in their lives.

Here’s my problem: Work-life balance in my 20s was nonexistent.

At one point in my late 20s, I held a tenure-track position, performed in two orchestras, ran a non-profit, and waited tables at a wine bar to keep myself afloat because the pay was horrible and I had crippling debt from college.

I remember coming home from work one day, excited about a major development with the non-profit I was running. When I shared the great news with my wife, she said “Great! How much will you get paid?” I told her “Nothing, all the money will go back into the organization so it can grow.” She lost it. “This is not sustainable, you are spending way too much time and money on this and not seeing any results.” I said, “This is going to pay off in the long run, whether it’s running this organization or doing something else.”

The tension between me and my wife in our 20s was real. We were constantly stressed because we simply weren’t making enough money to have financial stability and we never saw each other. For five years in my late 20s and early 30s, I worked my ass off because I knew that the work in the moment would help future Nate be successful, and it did.

As someone who is now solidly not in his 20s, I have been trying to empathize with the 20-somethings out there who are now demanding change.

America has been promising change in the workforce for my entire career. In 2007, I taught an Entrepreneurship course at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. One of my required readings for the class was a lovely book called Live First, Work Second by Rebecca Ryan. The thesis of the book was that the Baby Boomers were going to retire at any moment, leaving a huge void in the workforce. In turn, that would create an opportunity for new workers to demand a new and different type of work-life balance, one that would place things like mid-day yoga and mental health at the center of the workday instead of constant, unwavering work.

One year later in 2008, the economic downturn happened. At that point everyone just felt lucky to have a job, baby boomers didn’t retire as expected, and with many layoffs, the workforce was asked to do more with less.

We hit the pause button on all the things that needed to change. It wasn’t until the pandemic hit that the demand for change came back into focus.

The old man in me wants to say “All of us had to put in long hours at the expense of work-life balance in our 20s. Put the time in now and it will pay off in the long run.”

But I won’t say that, because 20-somethings are not wrong in demanding a better work-life balance. The world has changed since I was in my 20s and there are a lot of things that make work for our current 20-somethings a lot different.

Here’s how I think we can work to achieve a work-life balance shift.

Stop shaming people for wanting work-life balance.

I think we put too much emphasis on work output as the sign of life and career success. Not everyone wants to be the CEO and treating 20-somethings as though leading an organization is their only path to success is part of the reason there is such high burnout.

To be clear, if you are a worker in your 20s, the fastest path to advancing your career is to work harder than anyone else around you. That likely means sacrificing quite a bit of work-life balance.

If, however, you want work-life balance in your 20s, I don’t think that necessarily places you on a path to mediocrity, but it does potentially limit your ability to advance as quickly as I hear some 20-somethings would like to move up in their career. You just can’t have it all.

Organizations need to set expectations at the point of hire and have reasonable expectations of workflow from one week to the next. Doing so might help provide some balance and keep your employees around a bit longer.

Create a flexible work environment.

This goes in the “give them what they’re asking for because it makes sense” column. As a manager, it is my responsibility to help my team find a healthy work-life balance. I acknowledge that the jobs 20-somethings do often require long hours, demanding schedules, and limited flexibility, making it difficult for them to achieve this balance. In light of this, I try to be in constant communication about strategies to work smarter and I regularly seek their advice on potential efficiencies in the work.

The first few jobs of any career will involve a lot of work. The job is most likely entry level and everything is new. However, if there isn’t the prospect of upward mobility, higher pay, or long-term job security, it’s no wonder that 20-somethings are demanding more balance.

Our workforce is a system that rewards and values output. Not many companies or organizations are going to ask their workers to do less, but there is an opportunity to provide the necessary shifts in the workplace that will encourage 20-somethings to put the time in.

A flexible work environment can refer to a variety of different arrangements that allow employees to have more control over when, where, and how they work. A great way to help 20-somethings achieve work-life balance is to adopt some of the following flexible work opportunities:

  1. Remote work: Allowing employees to work from home or from any location outside of the office.
  2. Flexible schedules: Allowing employees to choose their own hours or have a more flexible schedule, such as a four-day workweek or the ability to start and finish work earlier or later.
  3. Compressed workweek: Allowing employees to work longer hours over fewer days.
  4. Unpaid time off: Allowing employees to take time off without pay when they need it.
  5. Summer hours: Allowing employees to take the summer off or have a more relaxed schedule during the summer months.

If 20-somethings are still craving more balance and flexibility, employers might consider offering 20-somethings the opportunity to work fewer hours in the week through a part-time position, or even allowing a job-sharing opportunity where two or more employees split a full-time role and work part-time.

The possibilities are endless and it is encouraging to see 20-somethings be so vocal about the type of work environment they would like to have.

I don’t think the pursuit of work-life balance will lead to a career path of mediocrity. However, I do think that the work will always be there and it is up to us as a whole to work together to find balance.

I hope the push from 20-somethings for change will bring in a new way of work that changes the workforce for the better.

(Photo Credit: Christina)

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Nate Zeisler is the Dean for Community Initiatives at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. He envisions a world where students majoring in the arts have a clear path to a sustainable career, where creative minds are empowered and inspired to rule the workforce, and where access to the arts is not just for the privileged few, but for all.

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