Friday, May 30, 2008

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Work-life balance

A recent conversation about “work-life balance”, along with various reports of examples of difficulties in that area, and a recent presentation by a Human Resources manager have made me think a lot, lately, about the issue. The HR manager, in particular, triggered some thoughts with a statement that there really is no such thing as “work-life balance”, that it’s a myth.

Is it a myth?

Of course it’s not. Work-life balance certainly does exist, but here’s the thing: you choose the balance. And every choice you make has effects, benefits, drawbacks, and consequences.

If you want to be a corporate executive, you need to put the time and work in to achieve that. Most likely, that time and work will take away from other parts of your life, from time you could spend with your family and friends, from vacations and weekend time and other leisure activities, from work you might have put toward writing a novel. If you aren’t willing to give up those things, you have that choice, at least in most jobs. But that will delay or derail your moving up at the office, and you’ll certainly find yourself off the fast track. Many people finish their careers without having progressed to senior positions in their companies.

And that’s OK. It’s the choice they made.

It’s their work-life balance.

A year or so ago, a colleague of mine, a female middle-manager, posed a work-life balance question that she looked at as a women’s issue, as something facing a mother:

My husband has to be at work early, and he gets home early, so he has responsibility for the kids in the afternoons, and I get them to school in the mornings. That means that I can’t leave for work until after 8. What do I do when some VP decides that he needs me in a 7:30 meeting?
There were few suggestions for her, really. But I looked at it differently: the problem is neither new, nor related to women or motherhood. Watch movies or television from the ’50s and ’60s, and you’ll see plenty of plots involving fathers who had to miss their kids’ ball games, school plays, and music recitals because they had to work long hours or go on a business trip.

The difference between then and now is that women now have to deal with those issues too. Forgetting, for now, about the very real problems of artificial limitations placed on women; of gender imbalances, roles, and stereotypes; of unequal pay for women, still on the order of 75% of what men get, overall... forgetting, for now, about those things, the fact remains that the positive changes for women in the workforce have the consequence of saddling women, as well as men, with these age-old work-life balance problems.

We want to “have it all,” we do. But we can’t; none of us, not men and not women, can have it all. The best we can do is to optimize what we have based on the priorities we set. We each have to create our own balance.

1 comment:

Dr. Momentum said...

Just looking at your example there is something glaring and very much new, compared to the 50's.

Both parents are working, and that means that there is a new entity involved: the other spouse's employer. Perhaps it is a similar problem, but the dynamic is different. In ancient times both parents had a job, but they didn't both have employers they had to please, in addition to both having responsibilities to their children.