The Coveted Work-Life Balance of the Modern Economy

Young people nowadays place considerable importance on free time and leisure. That of course doesn’t mean we don’t want to work (contrary to the grumbling of older generations), but rather that we don’t want our jobs are dominant our daily lives. The idea of spending most of our waking hours five days a week in the workplace simply isn’t appealing, and the reasons should be obvious — there is more to life than toiling away just to make enough money to scrape by (low paying and benefit-less jobs certainly do not help matters).

The Washington Post reveals just how much Millennials — those who came of age during the 21st century — value work-life balance, yet are sorely let down by the prevailing American business culture.

Professional workers in companies that shed employees in the Great Recession are still doing the work of two or more people and working longer hours. Salaries have stagnated, and costs continue to rise, according to a new survey of nearly 10,000 workers in eight countries by Ernst & Young’s Global Generations Research.

But another big reason? The boss just doesn’t get it.

Close to 80 percent of millennials surveyed are part of dual-income couples in which both work full time. Of Generation X workers, people in their 30s and 40s now, 73 percent are. But of baby boomers, the generation born just after World War II that now occupies most top management positions, just 47 percent have a full-time working spouse. More than a quarter of baby-boomer workers have a spouse at home, or one who works part time or with flexible hours and is responsible for taking care of all home-front duties.

“I really see that there’s an empathy gap in the workplace”, said Karyn Twaronite, EY global-diversity and inclusiveness officer. “When there’s frustration about work-life balance in the workplace, and you think your boss doesn’t get it, that very likely could be true”.

In short, a bad economy is forcing people to work more hours at the expense of any free time for themselves or their loved ones. This explains why younger people are not marrying (and if so, much later), are not having children, and are not even having as much sex (fatigue and lack of time are cited among the most common reasons).

It all explains why chronic sleeplessness is at epidemic proportions — sleep is the only thing left to cut into if you want time to watch your favorite shows, hang out with friends, and do other leisurely activities. The subsequent increases in stress, anxiety, and even obesity all point to the sense of time deprivation; we just don’t have the time to unwind, cook healthier food at home, or exercise.

This may seem like a lot to attribute to working hours and overall business practice, and certainly there are many other factors (economic, cultural, and even environmental) that contribute to some of these social trends. But in so far as our survival and resources are contingent upon employment, and most people spend an ever-increasing proportion of their time at work, it is not a stretch that what goes on at hours jobs impacts our entire lives.

In the United States, the only advanced economy in the world with no paid parental-leave policy, only 9 percent of companies offered fully paid maternity-leave benefits to workers in 2014, down from 16 percent in 2008, according to the Families and Work Institute’s National Study of Employers. For spouses and partners, 14 percent of U.S. companies offer paid leave, either partially or fully paid, down from 16 percent in 2008.

The institute found that the share of employers offering reduced hours and career flexibility also has fallen and that flexible work options are not available to all employees, but only to certain groups, such as parents.

“Wanting flexibility or work-life balance is the number one thing we hear all the time from candidates. It’s the number one reason why people are looking for a new job, by far”, said Heidi Parsont, who runs TorchLight, a recruiting firm in Alexandria. “We’re definitely seeing more candidates asking for it. But companies still see it as making an exception. It’s still not the norm”.

Is it any wonder that birth rates have plummeted among young people, who have neither the time nor money to start, much less maintain for years, a family? A job that offers the right balance of decent pay and reasonable working hours, let alone paid maternity / paternity leave, is pretty much mythical — especially now that most new jobs are in the low-paying, benefits-slashing retail and fast food sectors.

As the article later points out, many Millennials make due simply by opting out of the rat race for punishing upper-management positions, instead sticking with whatever offers the most free time regardless of pay. We’re just living more thriftily and resourcefully, and forgoing big purchases — like real estate or newer cars — in favor of experiences or comparatively cheaper consumer goods (the smartphone, practically an icon of modern youth, is a lot less expensive than other must-haves of previous younger generations, especially for what it offers as far as functionality and entertainment).

It does not have to be this way. As I have pointed out many times before, most companies have the resources and capital to pay their workers more and hire enough people so that no one has to juggle multiple tasks while putting in vast hours. But in this cutthroat business environment, even record profits are not enough to incentivize companies to invest more in their employees than in their shareholders and top executives.

After all, what obligation does the private sector have beyond its own bottom-line (and that of its shareholders and investors)? Why should companies feel any obligation to give Millennials and other workers a better deal in terms of pay or treatment, when they can just as well keep racing to the bottom and hoarding that extra wealth?

This empathy gap between bosses and their employees speaks to the fundamentally different worlds and interests that separate owners and investors from everyone else. It shows how hierarchical and authoritarian companies can be with policy, despite operating in what is ostensibly a free and democratic society, where consensus and individual empowerment are supposed to be prevailing values.

This problem also speaks to Americans’ mentality towards free time, the widely held perception — including among many stressed and exploited workers — that leisure is secondary to labor, that one’s social value is reflected by what they do and whether they are formally employed. Asking for time off to do other things brands one as lazy and uncommitted. Heaven forbid there is anything else worth doing in life outside of working for someone else in order to get a slimmer piece of the pie.

Obviously, working is not in and of itself a bad thing. But it should be meaningful and rewarding, and it should not be so dominant as to crowd out time for love, creativity, exercise, de-stressing, and other valuable components to a healthy, fulfilling life. So many people, including those at the prime of their lives, are squandering their time at poor jobs that do not compensate them well or value them.

An entire generation is growing up in a system where the only options available to get by (if even) is to slave away for long hours while skimping on leisure, or being cutthroat or connected enough to game the system and get ahead, sometimes at the cost of one’s integrity and morality. We are coming of age in, and being shaped by, an economic system that is not responsive to human need, that beggars us, that shifts all its capital and resources towards enriching only a few, and rewards only the ruthless, well connected, and steadily toiling.

I am not saying everyone and anyone who is successful or financially secure has sold out or done terrible things to get there. But given the enduring stagnation of the economy and the miserable and unrewarding nature of modern employment, it is clear that most people are being locked out of any sustainable opportunity to make decent money without sacrificing time for ourselves, our loved ones, and our community.

It is about time we developed a more human and socially conscious economy. How we get there is another story entirely.

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