Employers have been discussing work-life balance for decades, with many touting it as a benefit to attract top talent to their organization. To be sure, people do want a work-life balance. According to a survey by Deloitte, a good work-life balance is the top priority among the youngest workforce participants when it comes to choosing an employer. So, to appeal to job seekers and retain employees, you should examine what work-life balance means, how that meaning has changed, and why balance is so important to much of the workforce.
The history of work-life balance
The concept of work-life balance has always referred to achieving an equilibrium between career goals and personal pursuits, but different eras and generations have had different perceptions of it.
If we trace it back to the post-Industrial Revolution era of the late 1800s and early 1900s, the balance people wanted to achieve related to the number of hours they worked. The efforts of labor organizers led to the creation of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which capped the workweek at 40 hours. It also:
- Set a minimum wage
- Set a minimum working age in some industries
- Provided workers with the right to collective bargaining
In the ensuing few decades, the United States was embroiled in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, accompanied by the rise of the baby-boom generation. Having grown up around hardship and wartime austerity, the boomers placed relatively little emphasis on work-life balance. Broadly speaking, their primary concern in the workplace was employment stability, particularly among the rising middle class. Long tenures were the name of the game and could lead to advancement to senior-level roles. Loyalty could pay off handsomely, at least for some people. For others, it led to high stress.
In the '80s, work-life balance began to resemble the contemporary conception. Part of the sea change was due to the rising numbers of women in the workforce. At the same time, society still expected working women to be the primary homemakers and child rearers. The dichotomy of opposing expectations helped give rise to flexible work arrangements and maternity leave so that women could split their responsibilities more easily between their employers and their families.
At the same time, Generation X (born between the 1960s and the 1980s) was entering the workforce. This generation of people had seen the toll a major commitment to work could have on their parents. They were disillusioned and wanted something different, so they called for the same flexible work arrangements and leave opportunities that working women sought. Thus, work-life balance came to mean the compartmentalization of work from the familial and the personal.
Today, Gen Xers and their successors make up the majority of workforce participants. Data provided by the Creditors Adjustment Bureau gives us a view of the breakdown as of 2020:
- Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964): 71.6 million workers, just 19% of the workforce
- Gen X (born between 1965 and 1980): 65.2 million workers, accounting for 35.5% of the workforce
- Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996): 72.1 million workers, or 39.4% of the workforce
- Gen Z (born after 1996): 68 million workers, which was 6.2 of the workforce in 2020
This means most of the contemporary workforce grew up expecting to enjoy professional and personal life satisfaction in at least roughly equal measures.
What work-life balance means today
"At least roughly equal measures" implies the desire for some imbalance favoring the life side of the equation. Indeed, many millennials view work as more of an accessory for supporting their lifestyle — that is, their pursuits and interests outside of work. In this context, work isn't an identifier or even an equal contributor to work-life balance. It's a necessity for facilitating contentment in their personal lives.
For a while, though, employers seemed to have a different impression of what millennials wanted. Because many millennials entered the workforce during the Great Recession while shouldering a tremendous student loan burden, employers expected a shift back to a boomer-like emphasis on employment stability. To sweeten the deal, many employers incorporated on-site benefits such as free food and recreation rooms. But most millennials didn't want perks strictly for their at-work presence. They wanted to earn good pay and benefits at a nice location — factors whose advantages could carry over into their personal lives.
"Most of the contemporary workforce grew up expecting to enjoy professional and personal life satisfaction in at least roughly equal measures."
The post-millennial generations, Gen Z in particular, seem to share much of the millennial attitude toward work-life balance. Rather than adhering to rigid regulations, they want more flexibility in their work. The new generational expectations relate to more than just adaptable scheduling and remote work. They also have to do with providing opportunities for young workers to pursue projects that interest them personally.
Some employers may claim millennial and post-millennial job seekers are overly choosy. But a different way to frame that is that they're more selective than previous generations about what constitutes acceptable working conditions. Today's young workers are more empowered and are, therefore, stronger advocates for their rights, including the right to a life that pleases them.
Why work-life balance is important to younger workers
The greater emphasis on work-life balance is attributable to a couple of factors. One is technological. With around 85% of Americans owning smartphones and 92% of U.S. households owning at least one computer, a lot of work can be done just about anywhere, not to mention faster and more accurately than in generations past. The means of producing work have changed, becoming easier and allowing for more flexibility, and many younger workers feel that working conditions should reflect that change.
Another factor is just awareness, a sort of continuation of the disillusionment that Generation X felt. Says Reid Cramer, quoted in Jill Filipovic's book about Millennial struggles, "Millennials did everything they were supposed to do in a recession ... go back to school and invest in yourself ... but it hasn't translated into rising incomes." The sense is that having a degree or even a career won't necessarily make your life better. An active pursuit of a better life can, however, and that's why millennials and post-millennials are shaping their work around their envisioned lives, not the other way around.
How you can promote a healthier work-life balance
Interestingly, you can help realize the millennial/post-millennial ideal of work-life balance by focusing on improvements on the work side of things. For example:
- Compensate well. Fair pay and benefits are the work factors that enable a person to enjoy their life. Without these, a candidate or existing employee has an incentive to look elsewhere.
- Empower your workers. Allow them to exercise autonomy wherever possible. If they complete their work satisfactorily, you can let them choose when and where they work.
- Provide meaningful work. A lot of younger workers want to feel that their efforts contribute to something that achieves a real outcome. Busywork is the opposite of that. Because it serves primarily to fill time on a predetermined schedule of hours, many millennials and post-millennials view busywork as antithetical to work-life balance.
- Focus on well-being. Remember, younger workers are more likely to want their job to serve their personal needs, so it makes sense to create an environment that nurtures who they are as people. Paid time off, wellness programs, and counseling services can go a long way.
- Create opportunities for advancement. When someone is disillusioned with the traditional notion of the road to success, they need to see, more than ever, that hard work can lead to great outcomes.
The American workplace is always evolving. Keep current with trends in human resources to help ensure you're doing right by your employees. The effort you put into fostering a satisfied workforce can pay off when you're able to attract and retain top-tier talent.
More tips about attracting talent and fostering employee well-being:
- When you're looking to hire younger workers, many of them will be recent university graduates. It's important to know how to appeal to them.
- Mental health is a key concern among today's workers, and you play a huge role in maintaining it.
- Understanding the factors that inform burnout can help you prevent it.