A scale with three blocks of work on one end and one block of life on the other end in front of a green background.

Millennials and Work-Life Balance: A Troubled Love Story

By Brandi Mitchell
Web Content Contributor

As I enter my final semester of college and look towards a future in the workplace, the changing notions of work-life balance and what percentage of my life and energy will be funneled into my work has sharpened into focus. 

Since high-school, I have been about as type-A, high-achieving, if-it-isn’t-a-4.0-it’s-not-good-enough as anyone can be. Constantly weighing what I was doing against the people around me, spiraling into moments of torment where I pictured my imaginary competition curing cancer while I am watching “The Bachelor.”

I generally allowed and encouraged myself to sacrifice what I wanted to be doing for what I felt I should be doing. 

 What keeps me competitive in the job market, and what I would choose to be doing instead, are not mutually exclusive. I am certainly happy when I am busy and productive.

However, with a future career in mind, I feel that there is certainly an underlying narrative perpetuated at most competitive universities: if you have free time you are doing something wrong.

It is intriguing to see how Millennials and Gen-Zs have encountered this problem, and begun to shape it in their own way. Whatever peccadilloes our generation has, I think that this fresh perspective on what it means to work and live has the potential for an enormous pay-off— and not primarily financially. 

The new workforce enters a job willing to negotiate for work hours outside a traditional 9-to-5. Days working from home, hours that fit their unique schedules and the ability to drop off and pick up their children from school are all common requests in this changing work world; flexibility has become as good as gold.

With technology allowing ground-breaking accessibility worldwide, what is trapping us behind a desk from 9-to-5? 

When the sweetest moments remain time spent with the people we love and pursuing passions that don’t always have a place in an office, no matter how fulfilling and meaningful our work is, perhaps we need to consider how valuable a work schedule that leaves room for those aspects of life is.

What if our ability to travel the world, visit out-of-town friends, backpack in Costa Rica, read a new novel, and (one day) attend our children’s dance recitals and soccer games wasn’t exclusive to two weeks’ vacation? 

A red heart balancing on a small rock in front of a black background
. Many people struggle to balance what they want with what they feel they should be doing.
Image via Creative Commons.

Often, older generations seem resentful of this push for a work-life balance that isn’t so heavy on the 40-plus hour work week. They sometimes perceive this as lazy or an attempt to work less hard or less often.

I can personally say, I doubt any person in my life would accuse me of laziness. Yet, I can attest that a job allowing me to have rich friendships, rich relationships, rich experiences, and a life filled with love is a job I would work at with more passion than a job restricting me to 9-to-5 and a few weeks a year to travel. 

The real beauty of it is– it’s already happening and it’s already working. Patagonia is a company now worth $1 billion dollars that got started with the owner selling equipment he made out of the back of his car to aid his own passion for backpacking and outdoor sports. The company promotes a mission of caring for the planet, anti-consumerism and an employee-oriented work environment. 

Employees at the global headquarters wear what they want, set their own hours, leave to go surfing when the conditions are right and hang their towels up to dry in the office, go on “field trips” to backpack and rock climb around the world and can leave for up to two months with their same Patagonia salary to work at a non-profit of their choice.

Still, this company has only continued to grow and expand even as their employees enjoy a work-life balance that values the outdoors and experiences outside of traditional office walls. 

If this sounds like a dream (and I’m sure it does), then why is there hesitation that work that fits more seamlessly into our lives will make us lazier? It brings to mind reification, or the idea that we are convinced we cannot change practices that have “always been this way,” when in fact, we are the ones who created them in the first place. 

We invented the idea of a 9-to-5 40-hour work week and we are perfectly capable of creating something new. I don’t have time to explore the Silicon Valley nannies and their stories about the lives of tech giants, the varying ideas of work worldwide that are excellent examples of other functioning systems or the tendency for the 40-hour work week to turn into 50, 60 and 70 hour weeks. 

I don’t have time to explore the lack-of-sleep so prevalent in our generation, the dependence on medication to get by, the crippling pressure beginning in middle school about SATs, college decisions and resume builders—all with the hope of a good job because we now have to stay competitive in a global playing field.

All of these are essential to the conversation around work that touches privilege, wealth inequality and health—but these are conversations for another time. 

Right now, it’s as simple as this: I want to look back on my life and see a plenitude of friendships, laughter, experiences, books read, places visited, mountains hiked and time dedicated to leaving this world a better place than when I found it. It may sound cliché, but I would warrant a guess that many of you feel the same way.

Work hard, work well and work at something that inspires you— but with the understanding that our idea of work is not carved in stone. The rest of our lives change monumentally from age-to-age, and our ideas of working to live or living to work can fluctuate as well. 

As you graduate and enter the workforce, consider what really matters to you. Don’t use it as an excuse to sidestep hard and worthy work, but don’t give all of yourself to something that you will look back on and see as a means to an end. We are a nation of workaholics, but we don’t have to be. 

I’ll leave you with this: 

Everything has its cost, especially our career choices. College is a good time to determine how much each of us is willing to pay.

Featured image via Creative Commons.

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