The historian and author, Studs Terkel, famously wrote, “Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirits.”
A few of you might be reacting to the title of this article thinking, “Hey, my work is my life,” or “My job is the most fulfilling thing in my life.”
But that’s not what this article is about. Because life isn’t work. Yes, it can be a Big part of life, but it isn’t life. In fact, in the recent popular news of a palliative nurses’ summary of the regrets of those who are dying, the only mention of work was, “I wish I had not worked so hard,” especially from men.
While it is thought that Freud said “Work and love are the cornerstones of our humanness,” it is true that work is the primary activity in most people’s lives. Work and love (however we define it) still are the primary forces that drive most of our actions.
For many, the role of work has changed dramatically in modern life. The way we work is being redefined. The meaning of work is in the process of global redefinition. Yet, in many ways work’s deeper meanings still form the underlying basis for how work motivates us.
David Whyte, the inspiring author of “The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship, writes, “All of us living at this time are descended from a long line of survivors who lived through the difficulties of history and prehistory: most of whom had to do a great deal of work to keep the wolf, the cold and the neighboring tribe from the door. Work was necessity: work meant food, shelter, survival and a sense of power over circumstances. Work was, and still is, endless.”
While the need for “food, shelter and survival” remains, the meaning of how we define work – and the context of work as part of life is changing. And an important part of that equation is our constantly evolving sense of our “power over circumstances.” How that power is defined and who determines it is a critical aspect of the meaning of work – and life.
It’s Not Just About Stress at Work
70 hour standard work weeks have, sadly, become the norm for many Americans. Even though there have been some gains in corporate policies (over half of companies surveyed say they offer some form of flex-time) research shows that employee experience doesn’t match corporate reports. In many cases, employers send their workers double-messages about expectations about the hours and ways they work.
We don’t discuss “work addiction” much anymore because it has become endemic in the American work culture.
We tend to think that the American “movement” for work-life balance is simply about the real need to manage stress in this culture. Even though recent studies all point to the workplace as the single greatest source of stress in the culture, the desire for more life outside of work and more life at work, goes beyond “stress management.”
A growing body of research has revealed that as many women are approaching “mid-life” (technically these women are the upper percentages of the Gen X 30- 44-year-old age cohort ) they are “becoming on average, sicker and sadder.” Results from six recent major happiness studies show that this drop in happiness occurs regardless of marital or child status, economic conditions or work-life factors.
Marcus Buckingham, author of Find Your Most Successful Life: What the Most Successful and Resilient Women Do Differently writes, “Over the last 50 years, women have secured greater opportunity, greater achievement, greater influence and more money. But over the same period, have become less happy, more anxious, more stressed and, in ever-increasing numbers, self-medicating.”
For those juggling the real demands of family and work, they do so in many workplaces that are still sorely lacking in support of life outside of work. This is also true for Baby Boomer working women, many of whom now carry responsibilities for children still at home and aging family members who need their help. According to a study done by Harvard and McGill Universities, the U.S. lags far behind nearly all wealthy countries when it comes to family oriented policies.
Jody Heyman, founder of Harvard’s Project on Global Working Families states that, “More countries are providing the workplace protections that millions of Americans only dream about.” The study notes that the U.S. is only one of five countries out of 173 that does not guarantee some form of paid maternity leave. (The other countries in this special group are Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland and Papua, New Guinea)
GEN Y – We Want More
Enter Gen Y – a massive demographic wave that is changing the American workscape. Sociologist Kathleen Gerson, describes this generation as “searching for a definition of personal identity that does not pit their own development against creating committed ties to others.” In response to their desires, Gen Y or Millennials have been branded as everything from, “lazy and unrealistic” to “entitled and difficult.”
Millennials have watched their parents and Boomer relatives work for decades only to lose their jobs and retirement benefits after “sacrificing” a lifetime. Sociologist Phyllis Moen points out that, “(Millenials) no longer believe in the myth that working in rigid ways for long hours necessarily pays off. That’s a real change.”
This generation isn’t content in finding just work-family balance – what they’re after is work-life balance. They, according to Lisa Horn of the Society for Human Resource Management, value their flexibility just as much as a working mom!
The Need to Ask New and Different Questions
If how we define work – and how we do that work is going through a major transition – then we need to start asking a whole new set of questions about meaning.
Is work still expected to be drudgery?
Do the demands of a job supersede our “personal” needs and desires?
How does the crumbling model of authoritarian command and control organizations impact the new mindset of work?
How much emotional and creative freedom should we expect from our work?
Again, author David Whyte offers some illuminating thoughts, “The great questions that touch on personal happiness in work have to do with an ability to hold our own conversation amid the constant background of shouted needs, hectoring advice and received wisdom. In work, we have to find high ground safe from the arriving tsunami of expectations concerning what I am going to DO. Work is a place you can lose yourself more easily perhaps than finding yourself. It is a place of powerful undercurrents, a place to find ourselves, but also, a place to drown, losing all sense of our own voice, our own contribution and conversation.”
After hundreds of years of working in the shadow of a “Protestant” ethic, we are redefining work. But in the process, we are also redefining what makes a fully human life. To do that, we must challenge every assumption that underpins the public and corporate policies that govern work. But we also have to face our own thinking about what we believe about work, success and of course – money. Money is a big elephant in our mental room.
Our own personal beliefs often justify work without adequate life as much as weak public policy or self-serving corporate practices do. We may not (now) have the economic freedom to fully realize the balance of work and life – but we can reclaim what that means for us. It must begin there.
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Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants