Why Millennials Need To Fight For Work-Life Integration

by Alex Durand

When I hear my friends celebrate that it’s Friday and then complain when it’s Monday, I remind myself that it's not the marker of the average Millennial. Rather, it is the marker of the average American worker.

A 2008 Harvard Business School survey of 1,000 professionals found that 94 percent worked 50 hours or more per week, and almost half worked in excess of 65 hours per week.

It wasn’t too long ago we were talking about “work-life balance,” which was the appropriate term used by Gen-X to describe their struggle to find equilibrium among their competing personal and professional priorities.

For us Millennials, “work-life balance” is a values misnomer; it implies that we evaluate work and life separately.

Work and life were fully integrated up until the invention of the clock and the rise of manufacturing.

In the Middle Ages, even feudal peasants took naps throughout the day, made time for three meals and some amount of play ("Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has The Time," by Brigid Schulte).

As we moved from a rural, agrarian world to an urban landscape and economy, work days became more structured. This continued until Henry Ford came along in the 1910s and proclaimed that the optimal work week was made up of 40 hours.

Beyond 40 hours, a worker's productivity declined.

Ford also understood that providing better working conditions for his employees further optimized their productivity. In other words, Ford was one of the first to make a sound business case for why an employer should have a vested interest in the personal well-being of his employees.

The reality is that for anyone who works a corporate job today, building a life that balances all priorities (work included) can seem like a Herculean goal.

Face-time cultures — work cultures that operate on the belief that employees can’t be productive if they’re not at the office — as well as the practice many of us have adopted regarding the perceived over-worker — he/she who is busiest is “obviously” the best employee — are (hopefully) soon to be outdated practices.

But, they are still the norm. Therein rests the reason why so few people achieve work-life integration.

We are stuck with a 50-plus-hour workweek that no longer matches how we work. We have evolved from an economy of goods to an economy of services.

The key difference between the two is that in an economy of goods, workers performed rote mechanical tasks and could optimally do so for eight hours a day, given the consistent and standardized nature of the work.

The assumption became that knowledge workers were not bound to the same limits of productivity as labor workers. The truth is, however, that the knowledge worker has the capacity for six hard mental work hours per day. Beyond hour six, you can no longer expect optimal productivity from your knowledge worker.

He or she who works the most is not the same as he or she who works the best.

In the future, he or she who works the best will actually be the person who finds personal fulfillment in his or her work and can monetize his or her authentic path.

In fact, I predict that retirement will be an outdated concept by the time Millennials reach their 60s (don’t worry, financial advisors’ savings will still be of the utmost importance).

Instead of working for 40 years to earn “me” time, we will have fully integrated careers and our later years will simply see us involved in fewer of our own projects.

Most Millennials want to live lives full of purpose and meaning, and many of us do not see work and life as two separate entities. We see ourselves in our work, and our work as a reflection of who we are as people.

The majority of conversation surrounding work-life integration today is centered upon how leaders can succeed by integrating and optimizing “their talents, time and their abilities to leverage technology to yield their best productivity.”

Technology supports work-life integration (which is different than work-life balance). For someone with optimized work-life balance, email can disrupt your “life.”

Alternatively, for someone with optimized work-life integration, email allows you to work from outside the office more often.

The key differentiator here is the intent of the medium. The majority of the conversation today still surrounds how to achieve work-life integration in order to make employees feel better, without tackling the difficult task of creating work cultures that actually lead to better lives.

Take the recent news out of Silicon Valley, regarding the option that Apple and Facebook will give their (few) women employees to freeze their eggs in exchange for up to $20,000. This would allow the women to keep pace with their male colleagues and forgo having children in the “prime” of their careers.

If this isn’t a blatant example of a poor use of work-life integration, then I don’t know what it. Yes, it seems nice, but it’s a Band-Aid solution to a complex cultural problem.

If they really wanted a real work-life integration solution, they would address the corporate culture that places all women who have (or want to have) children at a career disadvantage. How about helping women have children whenever they want to have them?

How about supporting them with paid maternity leave and then creating a program that allows them to on-ramp back into their careers when they’re ready, without them fearing losing their jobs?

Now that would be work-life integration.

You see, Millennials, using the words isn’t enough — we also need to live those words. I can’t say with confidence that large corporate companies will “get it” in the near future; they may be a lost cause.

But, the businesses that we build, the companies that we support and the lives we choose to lead can all help create a better future for our children. In the process they can create more meaningful and purposeful lives for us, too.