Image by Amarily Moreno
The concept of work-life balance has morphed and evolved over the approximately forty years it has been with us. Each generational wave has ushered in a new take on how work best fits into life.
In a sense, work-life balance is something of a misnomer, as every generation has had a different take on the relationship between work and the rest of life. Lumping them all into the same moniker, which fits no version of the concept perfectly, is misleading.
Boomers working under the command-and-control economy that were able to “leave work at work” were probably the living generation that came closest to actually achieving work-life balance. Many of them actually did have discreet professional lives that were separate from their personal lives, although the mix was always skewed toward work. We worked at work and we played at home, and never the twain shall meet (until, of course, they did).
Gen X: Work-Life Accommodation
Gen X was never truly balancing work with life. They may not exhibit the same approach to work as the boomers, but they are pragmatic and realists. They understand that work eclipses all else in our business-first world. There is no balancing work with life, not in a world where we spend most of our waking hours at work only to bring that work home with us too.
As the experiments that Gen X undertook in building a more flexible workplace were really aimed at accommodating work in a greater life, a better term for the Gen X mindset might be work-life accommodation. Gen X recognized the difficulty in truly balancing work with a personal life while still expecting to succeed professionally.
Work still had to come first. The best they could hope to do was build a workplace that allowed enough flexibility to allow for shifting priorities and needs in one’s personal life.
Flexible work arrangements allowed them to fit their professional lives around their personal lives. They could shift work hours in order to drive the kids to and from school. Unfortunately, in the United States, only some parents are afforded a reasonable amount of maternity (and now paternity) leave.
These accommodations sometimes helped them navigate work that was taking up more and more of their time, but it was certainly not a rebalancing of the importance of work. Work maintained its primacy — it simply became easier to accommodate into one’s life.
The Millennial Mindset: Work-Life Integration
The millennial mindset can be described as work-life integration. This too should not be mistaken for balance. Millennials are not doing a better job of balancing their personal lives with work than Gen X has been. Instead, they have worked to integrate work into their personal lives. They are breaking down the walls between their professional and personal lives.
Compared to previous generations, fewer millennials are clocking into nine-to-five jobs. Many are cobbling together careers in the gig economy and pursuing part-time or flexible work arrangements. This is sometimes out of necessity. The Great Recession and then the COVID-19 global pandemic have made it hard for some young people to find full-time jobs, but for others, it is an elective lifestyle choice.
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Millennials are sometimes referred to as “slashers.” They are not just a programmer but a programmer/photographer. They are not just a customer service rep but a customer service rep/artist. Millennials are taking on multiple roles to explore different experiences in pursuit of finding themselves.
The slasher phenomenon is not restricted to those with part-time jobs or driving for Uber on the weekend. Many millennials with full-time jobs still identify as slashers. A millennial working in a law office by day and pursuing an interest in fine wine at night might be a para-legal/sommelier. A millennial nurse might work three shifts at the hospital and spend the other days working on an event planning business.
“Generation Me” — A Search for Meaning
We must understand the slasher trend as more than just economic survival, especially now that it continues well beyond the Great Recession and into a post-pandemic world. This is a search for meaning.
Millennials, sometimes called “generation me,” have always valued self-exploration and self-reflection. Their parents raised them to be exploratory and self-reflective — it worked. They treat their work lives as expressions of their true self and see jobs as a part of self-discovery on the path to see who they will become in life. In this way, they have always tried to integrate work into their lives in a way that feels authentic and true to who they are. They are not balancing work against life — they are integrating the two as fully as possible.
Lucky for them, millennials are a generation adept at integration. We can see this in their relationship to modern technology.
Modern Technology: Portable Skill Sets
While technology made Gen X the first generation able to teach up, most of them were already adults by the time personal computers became ubiquitous in the home. They were getting established in their careers by the time internet, smartphones, or social media became staples of modern life. This was not the case for millennials, especially the latter half of the generation, who grew up alongside these technologies.
Millennials entering the workplace were often using technology at home that surpassed what was being used in the workplace. Many millennials brought in tech from home in order to integrate technology from their personal lives into their professional lives.
Eventually, many companies relented somewhat on these policies and adapted to millennials. They had no choice — millennial knowledge workers have even more portable skill sets than their Gen X predecessors. They have more leverage in the transactional labor market than any previous generation. They are, in a sense, transactional “natives” whereas those who came before were transactional “immigrants” who had to adapt to the new transactional labor market.
Companies wanting to attract top millennial talent have to accept the ways in which millennials are integrating work into their lives. Often, what millennials strive for are more flexible work arrangements that allow them to pursue multiple interests simultaneously. Given that telecommuting is now so accessible, firms wanting to keep millennials in the office have had to take extreme measures to do so.
Cutting-edge companies in “sexy” sectors, such as tech, offer perks to keep workers in the office. Silicon Valley companies offer on-site entertainment and concierge services. Break rooms are stocked with the latest game consoles. Personal trainers, meditation rooms, and yoga instructors are viable options.
Technology workers are being offered a “gilded cage” just to keep them at work. These practices have become so prevalent in the tech industry that even many legacy companies are following suit in order to compete for top talent.
Why would anyone work in the IT department of a fusty old bank when Facebook is offering onsite masseuses and yoga at work? The world is a different place. This is the problem that companies face in retaining top talent. They aren’t just trying to keep millennials in the office — they are struggling to keep them in the company. The labor market is more transactional than ever and workers with in-demand skill sets can jump from one company to the next in pursuit of a better quality of life.
Gen Z: Different Options, Different Choices
Gen Zers, who are now entering the workforce in large numbers don’t see flexible work schedules as a benefit but rather as a requirement. Saying to a Gen Zer at a job interview that you offer flexible working arrangements is like saying to them they’ll get to work in a building with doors. Gosh, no kidding, real doors?
While the Gen Z identity is still developing, they seem to be continuing on many of the trends observed with millennials. Gen Z appears to be even more entrepreneurial than millennials. Like the millennials, they never knew the covenant unbroken and have never expected employers to take care of them. However, they also understand that societal safety nets are in a precarious state.
Not only can Gen Z not expect a pension, which is now a nostalgic notion, they can’t even be certain that Medicare and Social Security will be there when they retire. Couple this knowledge with the fact that Gen Z watched millennials and their own parents struggle during the Great Recession, and it is easy to see why they are more fiscally conservative. I do not mean this in a political sense, but a personal one.
Gen Z is more concerned with saving money and skeptical of taking on debt than their predecessors. They have seen millennials struggling with college debt and stunted careers and are thus making more conservative choices about their finances.
The Coming Work-Life Options
This reserved and practical outlook colors how Gen Z fits work into the fabric of their lives. They are moving beyond work-life integration and pursuing what I would call work-life options. They appear to value employment stability more than millennials, and they are very interested in establishing a career with firms that offer professional growth and development. They also use their free time to pursue hobbies and interests that might someday become real careers. This is different than the millennial “slasher” phenomenon.
Gen Zers aren’t pursuing multiple jobs in order to explore different paths. They are pursuing stable careers while cultivating side projects that could one day become businesses. They take a more entrepreneurial — even mercantilist — approach to their side projects. These are often best described as “side hustles” that, while bringing in a little money now, may someday provide a major source of income.
Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why talks about how important it is to have a purpose in life. While being a “slasher” or having a “side hustle” will provide the young with opportunities to explore their interests and to make some additional money, more importantly, it will be about discovering something they are passionate about and that gives profound meaning to their lives.
This exploration by Gen Z can be seen clearly with so-called “influencers,” young people that build large social media followings and leverage them for corporate marketing dollars. Corporations now spend a significant share of their marketing dollars on paying influencers to use, review, and promote their products. These young people have found ways to not only develop their personal brand and identity, but to also leverage it into careers. Gen Zers are pursuing all kinds of side hustles, be it as YouTube celebrities or reselling vintage sneakers on eBay.
The side hustle is not just a hobby, and it is not just an exploration of self. The side hustle is a plan B with sights set on plan A. They may have passion for the hustle, but these are also moneymaking efforts that can create a significant revenue stream.
I don’t mean to paint this group as being obsessed with money — they are merely looking for ways to monetize their interests. They want options, both a stable career and an entrepreneurial endeavor. Preferably both will match their personal qualities and bring them fulfillment and financial success.
The Future of "Work-Life Balance"
Going forward, employers are going to have to adapt to this new perspective on working. Gen Z is going to want greater flexibility to pursue their options. Smart companies will embrace this desire rather than fight against it. Gen Zers are still committed to their job, for now, which is the most you can hope for in a transactional labor market.
Smart companies allowed millennials to do work their own way — whether it came to the use of tech or the desire for flexible work arrangements — and it should be no different for the new kids on the block. In order to recruit and retain talent, especially in tight labor markets, employers must seek to understand what people want out of work. The young are not lazy or entitled — they simply have a different mindset about how work best fits into life.
Copyright 2022. All Rights Reserved.
Printed with permission of the publisher, Amplify Publishing.
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Chris De Santis is an independent organizational behavior practitioner, speaker, podcaster, and author with over thirty-five years of experience working primarily with clients in professional services firms both domestically and internationally. Over the past fifteen years, he has been invited to speak on generational issues in the workplace at hundreds of the leading U.S. law and accounting firms, as well as many of the major insurance and pharma companies.
He has an undergraduate degree in business from the University of Notre Dame, a master’s degree in business from the University of Denver, and a master’s degree in organizational development from Loyola University.
Visit his website at https://cpdesantis.com/