Work-life balance – A metric for a bygone era?
To set the scene, let’s go back a century, or two. Back then, for many of us, the opportunity to become part of the emerging industrial era, and ‘share’ in its economic spoils was very attractive. Farming was a little too unpredictable (too many environmental and market variables), as was being an artisan (having to find the business, AND deliver the product).
By joining the industrial machine, you were guaranteed a wage, regardless of the weather. And you didn’t have to deal with fickle customers. What’s more, being, literally, a component in the factory machine, meant that once you had learnt your assigned process, working life would be a risk-free breeze.
So we became labour, paid horsepower. But at the time, being paid for your time seemed ideal. You noticed how some of the experienced staff had learnt to do as little as possible, and still take home the same wages as the hardworking fools.
But after a while, the drudgery of the task, coupled with the associated immobility and social deprivation (“no talking on the factory line”) made you miserable. But after a little reflection, you always concluded that it was much better for you and your family than starving to death.
So let’s now fast forward to today.
Many of us today are still turning up to the factory. Okay, there are no hard hats, boiler suits or even conveyor belts. Nonetheless, many are still doing process work. Creativity and autonomy are not part of the remit. You are simply a more sophisticated cog in the machine, that is on standby for a rapidly approaching technology swap-out.
Many of us are still paid-labour. Many of us dislike what we do. However, we have developed lifestyles that need funding, so we are locked in for the duration. Again, with the Damoclean sword of technology innovation hanging above us. Not the best situation.
So you quietly rebel against the machine. You resent the hours of (mental) sweat / cognitive capacity you have devoted to the organisation. As you reflect on the shortness of our time on the planet and the length of time we spend at ‘the factory’, we are faced with the inexorable truth that we haven’t lived our lives very smartly.
This quiet rebellion takes the form of what many call work-life balance. The essence of which is to set boundaries on the stuff you need to do to survive economically, and the other stuff, aka having a life. Typically, this manifests itself as an aggressive refusal to look at work emails whilst on vacation. Unless, you truly live ‘in the present’, this approach will simply build a head of ‘anxiety’ steam, as you contemplate what cluster bombs await your return to the office. Work-life balance simply serves to make the life part more stressful.
So, am I implying that we should just let work and life coalesce, so that the boundaries disappear?
Yes. To some extent.
But the real issue, is that you are doing cog work, and cog work, despite the economic benefits, is unfulfilling. There are no real deliverables. There is no artistry involved. The factory model simply requires you to not screw up / adhere to the ops manual. Thankfully, increased automation, robotics and ‘algos’ are going to ‘free’ us from this ‘self-enforced’ enslavement.
But unless we enter a workless utopia, we had better have a plan B. That plan B requires a blend of competence, passion and market demand. All ingredients must be present. Keep in mind, no market demand means you have, at best, a very time-consuming hobby.
If you love what you do, then you will not resent putting in the hours. And if there is sufficient market demand, and you are competent, you can dictate the nature of the engagement, such that you are remunerated based on deliverables and not activity / presenteeism.
When you treat your career(s) as a path to mastery, and your deliverables as a form of self-expression, work-life balance becomes farcical. Why would you constrain what you love doing to set periods of the week? You and your client/employer are now fully aligned on the goal. You are doing creative work, are likely to be world class, or heading that way, and have the passion of a person on a mission.
So, does work-life integration mean that you take client calls during your own wedding ceremony, or child’s school play? No, of course not. Work-life integration is a term many use, including me, to make a stand against the work-life balance mantra.
As a term, work-life integration doesn’t really convey my clarion call to rethink how we conduct our lives in a world where you have to ‘pay to play’. The term ‘work’ has industrial era will-breaking connotations. Those that complain about work will most likely be relieved of their burden by the in-progress digital tsunami. We need to help as many as we can work up their plan B, for the sake of our societies. But, in aviation parlance, remember to fit your own ‘oxygen mask’ first before helping others.
If you have a term that better conveys this new post-industrial relationship between work and ‘life’, I would be delighted to hear it.