Article by Melissa Wall, Photography by Richard Beaven
We’ve reached the era of reconciling work and life. The ubiquitousness of “Lean In” as well as headlines proclaiming that you can/cannot/who knows “Have It All” have turned our collective attention toward a subject that, despite the endless discussion, still appears to have no answers. While we can all agree that it’s an important issue to address in the modern life, we can’t even agree upon best practices. Does a true work-life balance exist? Is it possible to scale? Does it rely upon being in a certain field, or socioeconomic bracket, or region? Should we simply give up and accept that work and family will always be in conflict with each other?
Or, are we looking at the entire issue through the wrong lens? Perhaps the only way to reconcile a question that seemingly has no answer is to reframe the question. In other words, should we be focusing on this concept we’ve dubbed “work-life balance" at all? Does the answer lie in creating a new paradigm?
The answer to both questions is “yes.” And the first step is moving away from the concept of “work-life balance” and moving toward something new: work-life integration.
Let’s look at the phrase “work-life balance” more closely. Balance implies that two separate forces are involved, each pulling in a different direction. Which is exactly how we’ve put it into practice: We divide our work life and our home life into church and state, and thereby set them up for conflict. When you’re home, it is separate from being at work, and thus any intrusion by work feels like just that—an intrusion. When you are at work, handling home matters (childcare being the primary time-consumer, but even having a cat or a front yard requires occasional work) leads to the same feeling of conflict. We may take measures to reconcile the two as much as possible, but at their cores they will always be two separate entities. But what if we reframed both concepts, removing them from their perma-conflictual state? What if we integrate our work into our lives, and vice versa, such that the two complement and enhance each other?
I’m sure the above statement provokes plenty of reactions, “Nice pipe dream” being the largest among them. The effects of the economic crisis are still heavily felt, and fewer workers are still being asked to do more work in less time. Meanwhile, many others are still looking for any source of income at all, let alone a full-time job. But despite the economic realities, a solid trend has emerged among the modern workforce: We want our work to be about something that we care about (beyond simply “making money”—in fact, it’s almost never just about making money). People are seeking a higher purpose in their jobs and careers, and are designing their lives around that goal. From the former investment banker who quit to found a startup to the photographer who left fashion shoots to tour Haiti, workers are finding ways to focus their energy on what they want their life’s work to be about, and what they want to leave behind when it’s all over.
At the same time, family dynamics are shifting as well. Men are staying home to raise children, and women are spending more years focused on career before entering the “time to start a family” phase (and many are eschewing it altogether). Home life has taken on a sacred quality that we all cherish—but if given the opportunity to work for a higher cause, we cherish our work as well.
Reaching this inspirational job nirvana may seem like a pipe dream, but for those who achieve it, there’s a way to escape the endless “work-life balance” loop. Your work becomes part of your life in a more fluid integration, in that your job isn’t this huge ogre tearing you away from your husband and kids—rather, it’s something that you do to leave them a better world, or to inspire them in their own lives.
When it comes to logistics, work-life integration can also come into play. It goes beyond the typical discussions of telecommuting, which has been under fire in the wake of Marissa Mayer’s ban on the practice at Yahoo. Working from home is great for some people, less great for others and arguably even less great for employers. But it also fails to get to the root of work-life balance, which is that you’re still viewing work as a set of obligations and stressors that plague you and steal your attention away from the things you’d rather focus on—it’s just a choice of whether this occurs in your pajamas versus a business suit. When true work-life integration has been achieved, issues like whether or not telecommuting is harming team-building and innovation are rendered moot, since you’re all working to achieve a clear goal that is prioritized and cherished by every member of the team. What does this look like from a nontheoretical standpoint? Maybe it’s a Mayer-esque move like building a nursery adjacent to your office. Or maybe it’s negotiating nonstandard hours or a nontraditional workweek, but with the understanding that you’ll be responsible for all the work getting done, and that you’ll relish that responsibility (perhaps not every moment of every day—nothing is fun 100 percent of the time—but still, you’ll see the bigger picture in the frustrating moments).
Am I advocating quitting your job today and declaring that you need more passion and work-life integration? No. But it’s not a bad conversation to have with yourself and your family, and it needs to start somewhere. What would inspire you every morning? What kind of work is worthy of spending your life on (with the full understanding that it’s the only life you’re gonna get)? What kind of work would inspire your family, to the point where they wouldn’t feel that you were constantly being pulled between your BlackBerry and Sunday dinner? We may never achieve balance between work and life—and by the nature of balance, even if we do achieve it for a time, it won’t last. But we can begin an inquiry as to what it would mean to not have two huge parts of our lives at permanent war with each other. Given how much is at stake, it certainly seems worth at least reexamining why we’re fighting in the first place.