Work/Life Balance, Really?*

*Not the original title – but my mother reads this blog, so there is no way I am publishing anything beginning with the F word!

I feel like sharing an article that I found in British ELLE a few years back: here are the words of Natalie Evans-Harding, discussing the benefits and drawbacks of the Work/Life Balance. It’s long (being an editorial article rather than a blog post) … But worth it. Enjoy!

I’m going back a few years here, but bear with me. I’m 20 years old and sitting in a cinema in Norfolk watching The Devil Wears Prada. Anne Hathaway’s character Andy has not only walked into an entry-level job on a major magazine straight after graduation (without the obligatory slog of internships), but we watch her earn the respect of her renowned boss, placing herself securely en route to a future editing a global magazine. OK, so it’s not exactly straightforward, but does she really expect a career like that to come easily? Likewise, in another film I saw around that time, Sweet Home Alabama, Reese Witherspoon plays a girl who dreams of becoming a successful fashion designer, only to achieve it, then chuck it all in to move home to rekindle a relationship with an old flame. No freaking way. People would chop off an arm for those jobs. To this day, those movies make my eyes roll to the back of my head. Please, someone explain – what’s wrong with wanting a demanding career? And being prepared to slog to get it?

thedevilwearspradapic

I understand this is not the fashionable line. In the papers, on the radio, at the bus stop, the topic of work/life balance has followed women since the end of the 1980s, when the women who “wanted it all” – home, career, family – acknowledged the blindingly obvious fact that there weren’t enough hours in the day. The solution? Wor/life balance™ – dished out in the 1990s by the New Labour government, who told us it was cool to be concerned about life beyond work and that they even had a pot of money to fund it. Among other balance-friendly policies, the minimum wage was introduced and improvements in childcare were prioritised. Subsequently, a buzz-phrase launched out of a trendy government initiative has become considered a civil right. It’s a nice idea. In an ideal world, we’d be able to take an hour’s lunch break to visit the bank, clock off on time, head home for a fulfilling evening with friends and family and then spend the weekend doing wholesome, cultured stuff. Well, I’m writing this on a Sunday and you know what? I spent all Saturday working, too. And sorry, sisters, but I wanted to.

People have been banging on about work/life balance for such a long time, we’ve come to accept we need it. But why, exactly? If you’re in your twenties with your whole adult life ahead of you, do you really deserve – or, for that matter, even want – it all now? We’ve been fed this idea that we can’t function without a rigid balance of personal and professional, but I’m 25, unmarried, renting and have no major commitments – so how should I be spending all this “me-time”? Watching marathon reruns of Come Dine With Me and booking aromatic Swedish massages? I’ve done both and, sure, it’s nice to kick back, but does it seriously improve my quality of life? I don’t think so.

Why do we need all this extra time unless we’re juggling children, a personal life and a career. And I emphasize career because having a job is one thing – something you do to pay the bills – and having a career is something else. It’s investing in a role, usually because, actually, you kind of like it (or at least it pays so well you kind of like it). You have the drive for it and you pour yourself into it; essentially, you care about it beyond the hours of nine to five. So my thinking is, if I care about my career than reality TV or spa treatments, that’s what I should spend my me-time doing. We’re fed this myth that we’ll collapse into a stress-induced breakdown if we work hard or for longer that the allotted schedule, but stress isn’t necessarily bad for us. It provides focus, stimulation and ambition to what’s otherwise a completely free-pass decade.

This attitude p**ses some people off, like I’m threatening the very concept of work/life balance if I don’t obediently adhere to it, or I’m whistle-blowing one the workers’ big secret – that, actually, we don’t all need the balance we’ve become accustomed to, that we could actually be working harder. Security guards circle the building at half past eight on a Friday night to switch off the lights and shake their heads when they find me still there in a dark office. I’m sure I look pathetic, but hasn’t it crossed their minds that I might want to spend my time like that? That no one is forcing me to stay and, even though I have great friends and live in a lovely flat with my partner and our cat, it’s actually my choice? I have plenty of interests, but gave up book club and yoga classes because at the moment I don’t really do “spare time”. That’s what you have when you retire.

There aren’t many people in top jobs who got there by complaining about the workload and putting on their coats at 4.55pm. The great Karl Lagerfeld agrees: “Nobody is forced to do [a] job and if they don’t like it, they should do another one”, he recently told The Independent. “But don’t start doing it and then say “Aaaah, it’s too much”… Me, I like to make an effort.” Do you really think Hillary Clinton or Hollywood film director Kathryn Bigelow are workshy? And if I need an example closer to home, I only need to look to my bosses – Lorraine Candy, ELLE’s editor in chief, started by doing work experience on The Cornish Times. Equally, our acting editor, Jennifer Dickinson, was once a PA who pushed the boundaries of her job to the extent that, at 33, she’s now manning the ship at ELLE HQ.

And why do we expect hand-clapping for our effort? We’re doing our jobs. “Don’t put in extra hours just to impress you boss,” says my friend Sara, 29, who works in the music industry. “Do it of you’re enjoying it, or learning something – as long as you’re gaining from the experience, it’s fine.” Working hard is no longer about getting a promotion (though you won’t get one without it) or because we have a deluded sense of loyalty. It’s clear now that jobs aren’t for life because businesses will chew us up and spit us out if it’s in their interest. So if I’m working overtime, it’s because I expect it to pay out for me later – it’s about my life, my career, my future – it’s a self-seeking opportunity.

Another friend, Ellie, 25, a junior food buyer for a famous restaurant, explains: ” A big part of how I define myself is through work. In my private life, my “roles” are quite basic (trying to be good daughter, girlfriend and friend), but at work I can teach myself so many other skills – I’m a negotiator, fiscally savvy, proactive and acquiring a good business sense. We’re not really taught these things, especially as women, in “real life”.”

And I’d argue that it is psychologically imperative we do this in our twenties, because we might not have the same opportunities – or the time – in our thirties. […] There may be big commitments, like marriage, mortgages and children. Putting in the extra hours at the office now is like paying into my worl:life pension. Investing additional effort while I don’t have serious demands leaves me with less overtime to do later. I don’t expect work to get easier when I’m older, but I do expect my time to be taken up with other distractions.

Working-late

[…] Ellie continues wistfully: “If I’m ever going to be able to do things to catch up with the quality of life my parents had 25 years ago, I need to hitch my ass up the ladder and working hard now can’t harm my chances.”

So there you have it. If you want it all, don’t expect it to arrive on a plate. I’m not suggesting work/life balance is unattainable or unnecessary. It is the successful, powerful figures in the world who get to turn off their work phones when they get home and concentrate on the “life” part, and the bigger picture of their work/life balance is due to the support of others. When they’ve checked out of the office, their young, ambitious protégées are there to carry on. Just like we hope ours will be when we’re in their position. Just like our bosses did for their bosses before us. […]

Right now, the workplace may be robbing us blind in our pay packets, but, likewise, I’m squeezing every last drop of experience out of it that will benefit my career. Hard work will pay off; you just need to have the belief.

Love,

Kate

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