Work-life balance is an ugly phrase and we need to find a new one


As you may have gathered from the title of this post, I don’t like the phrase “work-life balance.” I think, aside from the inescapable clunkiness and the self-help-y tone of the phrase, what bothers me about it is that it suggests a dichotomy between work and life that I think is less and less present, if it ever really was. Work is part of life and life part of work. Just because it’s not always fun doesn’t mean it’s not life.

Most of us spend the majority portion of our (conscious) adult lives at work. With coworkers. Doing work. Thinking about work and worrying about work. We build our vacations around our work. Many of our friends are our coworkers. Some of our spouses started out as coworkers, or friends of coworkers. For many of us, there aren’t firmly delineated boundaries. Personal and professional relationships can blend and change.

People say they need to work on their work-life balance when work takes over a greater portion of their lives than other things, other interests. When family suffers, when friendships deteriorate, when you’re just fucking exhausted all the time because you’re stressed out and on call all the time, that’s a poor work-life balance.

I’m not saying that it’s not a thing, and that it’s not important to figure out how to balance it, just that the phrase might be part of the problem. In suggesting that work and life are separate things, you make them into two opposing forces that need to be measured against one another. It becomes a “versus” situation, where work is up against family, friends, fun, etc., where it should be work and family and friends and fun. I think the need for balance comes back to anxiety, to the feeling of being overwhelmed by conflicting responsibilities. Of trying to manage on an ever decreasing budget of time.

Did I ever talk to you about the Culture of Character and the Culture of Personality? It’s mentioned in the book Quiet by Susan Cain, which I recommend whether you’re an introvert or not. If I haven’t, I’m about to, and if I have, get ready for redux:

In the Culture of Character, people are admired for internal traits, like honesty or temperance. There is a stronger delineation between public and private life, with greater weight being given to the person you are in private than the person you are in public. In the Culture of Personality, it’s much more external. How you present yourself in public is given more weight than your internal characteristics. Which makes charm very important. The book argues, and I would agree, that in the latter half of the twentieth century we moved from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality. Nothing wrong with it, but I do think that phrases like “work-life balance” relate to this. Because as we live our personal lives more publicly, as there is more overlap between our persona and our character, it can become a more difficult thing to balance all the different elements of your life. It can be harder to “switch off,” “unplug,” or whatever you want to call it. And not just because most of us never have our phone’s more than an arms-length away.

I’ve gotten a little off-track. The point of this post was, I don’t like the phrase “work-life balance,” and I want a new one. But I need help.

So, right now I’ve got “Anxiety Meniscus,” “Human Factor” (this one would be a measure of how close your were to being a computer in a flesh suit), “To-Do List Measure” (if your to-do list goes past a certain length, chances are you’re work-life balance is a drunk guy on a balance beam), ummm…

Okay, what you got?




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