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The dishonest myth of work-life balance

Daniel Howden
Daniel Howden

Daniel was a VP of Comms at Workable. He writes about the world of work. He was formerly with the Economist and Guardian.

There are some truly bad ideas that are nonetheless born survivors.

The notion of “work-life balance,” popularized in the 1980s, has been the source of a deep well of human misery. And it is one that won’t tap out.


It is common at this point to deliver a simplistic definition of the subject, a straw man, that is easy to knock down. But even a rounded definition of work-life balance, one that acknowledges its roots and good intentions, still leaves us with a flawed idea. The main flaw being dishonesty.

Why is work-life balance dishonest?

The discussion began with demographics. A new field of study dubbed “work-life” came into being with the entry of a larger number of professional women and mothers into the labor market in the US and elsewhere from the 1970s.

Traditionally work and life outside work had been seen as separate worlds. Many observers agreed this conception was due a reassessment. Researchers began to conduct surveys asking both men and women how they handled the demands of work and family.

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Momentum gathered in 1977 with the publication of Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s ‘Work and Family in the United States.’ A sociologist turned business professor at Harvard, she attacked what she called the “myth of separate worlds” prevalent at the time in the construction of work and family life.

Some of the largest U.S. corporations and much of the mainstream media caught up with Kanter in the decade that followed. The oil major, Exxon founded a national organization for the advancement of professional women and IBM funded a child-care services outfit called Work/Family Directions.

Kathleen Christensen, a professor of psychology and one of the luminaries of the work-life field sums up what was eating her back then: “What drove me in the ’80s was this gap between how there was this conventional rendering of the way the world of work was, and then there was this reality of how people were actually living their lives.”

“There was this dissonance, this mismatch between these people, these women; trying to fit themselves into a structure and it didn’t work. And, in some cases, they just changed themselves to fit; and other cases, they dropped out, and they dropped out with great cost, in many cases, to themselves.”

As is often the case, problems started to arise when a nuanced discussion — in this case about the realities and interactions between changing work and home lives — was boiled down to a three-word slogan.

“Work-life balance” found one of its earliest and loudest champions in the magazine Working Mother, set up in 1979. Its annual “Working Mother Top 100” became a competitive scramble among the Fortune 500 companies after the second run of the list made front page news in the Wall Street Journal. Despite the estimated 400 hours it took to apply for a place in the top 100, CEOs were prepared to sign off on it.

By the mid 1980s work-life surveys were instituted at IBM and posts like Work Life Director were created at Du Pont and elsewhere. August-sounding roundtables and leadership councils soon followed. In short, the work-life arms race had begun.

Meanwhile, the idea of balance had been spun a number of different ways. At its most wrong-headed, it was taken as a literal prescription to workers to spend the same number of hours at leisure as at work. It was also assumed among so-called enlightened companies that they were responsible for structuring the lives of their employees outside of normal working hours. Thirdly, it was frequently understood as an exhortation to working women to “have it all” with an equal measure of private and professional success.

What had in fact been created was a new inferiority complex afflicting women and men. Regardless of your pay packet, your job title, your professional achievements, the number of children you raised or the state of affairs at home, you were left to question whether you had struck the right work-life balance.

Moreover, the early conclusion that companies had an interest in retaining working mothers in the workforce sprawled into the idea that businesses had a duty to ensure their employees had this feted work-life balance.

Companies want everyone to work as hard as possible and employees expect to be compensated for their labor at a price the market deems competitive. The incentives here are pretty clear. The word “compensation” implies that the worker is giving something up (free time) for a reward (pay).

But as the conferences, speeches and magazine covers got into full swing this relatively honest relationship between employer and employee was obfuscated.

Companies now had a rational incentive to be disingenuous about what they wanted and they responded. If they could sell work-life balance to prospective employees they could gain a competitive advantage in hiring. Cue the arrival of false expectation and its fellow traveler, disappointment.

While the standard-bearers of work-life balance have fought hard to defend its record a quick look at the reality of the workplace in the ensuing decades paints a different picture. The more we talked about work-life balance the harder and the longer we worked.

This disingenuous conversation has helped to reverse historical trends toward shorter working weeks. In 1965 the average American man spent somewhere between 42 and 51 hours at work. By 2003 the equivalent number was down to 36 to 42. But the smallest net gains in leisure time were concentrated among the most educated and highest earning 10 percent.

When they did a roundup of major surveys researcher professors Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst found “a growing inequality in leisure that is the mirror image of the growing inequality of wages and expenditures.”

Meanwhile, the official figures fail to capture the way in which work has infiltrated leisure time and a punishing culture of “always on” employees has flourished alongside the agonized debates about work-life balance. Those people experiencing the smallest gains in leisure time were the same people who were most engaged in the work-life debate.

This was apparent when Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote in 2012 about her reasons for quitting a powerful job at the U.S. State Department in an article titled ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’. Among the many responses to Slaughter was Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, who argued that young women should be as ambitious as possible and “lean in” to their careers.

A close look at Kanter’s assessment of working conditions in the US 45 years after her landmark book is useful. You would expect that after decades of talking about it, digital forests of blog posts and shelves of business books, the impact of “balance” would be discernible in the economy. Not so.

“Certainly institutional structures don’t make it easy to balance work and the rest of life,” Kanter wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 2012. “This is especially true in the US, where vacations are short, sabbaticals are rare, school schedules don’t align with office hours, and working parents cobble together their own costly support systems.”

So what of work-life? Rather than admit that it has been debunked it has rebranded itself as flexibility. Bob Drago, author of ‘Striking a Balance: Work, Family, Life,’ puts it rather well: “The field literally disappears in the term flexibility. I mean it just took over; because corporations were [wondering] what can we do that doesn’t cost us money? And flexibility was the answer.”

And like so many work-life scholars, he thinks this is a good thing.

Related: How companies succumb to sunk cost culture

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