The Rise and Fall of Work Life Balance

The Rise and Fall of ‘Work Life Balance’.   A Potted History….

‘Sun up to sun down’ working

In the Industrial Revolution factory owners maximised their output by forcing long working hours (10 to 18 hours a day) on their workers who, by being paid a pittance, accepted that they must work as many hours as possible simply to survive.   Survival was so tough for the uneducated, working class masses that their children had to work too and all in appalling working conditions.  The notion of ‘work life balance’ (as we perceive it) wasn’t even a twinkle in the eye of even the most progressive of thinkers and reformers.

Thankfully this slowly began to change in the 19th Century when British socialists, such as Robert Owen, first proposed the notion of an 8 hour day for workers  – ‘Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest’.  Although this started to prompt some improvements for workers through the instigation of various Factories Workers Acts, the notion of an 8 hours working day didn’t really take hold in Britain until 1884, when the Trade Union Congress (TUC)  finally made the 8 hour working day one of its primary goals.

The US followed a similar pattern of progress and change and, in 1914, the Ford Motor Company was one of the first businesses to adopt an 8 hour day of its own accord.  Interestingly, and to the surprise of many in industry and the establishment, the impact of this reduction in working hours was huge and positively so.  Productivity increased and profit margins doubled within two years of implementing the new working hours.  What better proof that ‘work life balance’ makes excellent business sense?

‘Work Ethic’ and the Information Age

Skip to the 20th Century and how then had ‘work ethic’  become established so firmly in our working psyche as the best, perhaps the only way to really get on at work?   The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘work ethic’ as “The principle that hard work is intrinsically virtuous or worthy of reward”.  Ask workers today for an every day definition and most will say something along the lines of ‘burning the midnight oil’; slaving away in the office, showing the boss you’re prepared to put in the long hours and making sacrifices.   Thanks to the dawn of the Information Age in the 1980s, and propagated by government rhetoric and policy in support of big businesses, suddenly the 8 hour day became an old-fashioned notion.  Work ethic was no longer about making sacrifices for a moral principal – it was about making sacrifices to find self-fulfilment and success.   Workers were valued for their willingness to burn the midnight oil, as much as the quality of their output.

Work Life Balance and The Rise of the Millennials

Of course, as the eighties and nineties progressed, more and more evidence emerged of just how damaging to your health (and business) being over worked and stressed could be.  EU Legislation was created to protect workers from unhealthily long hours and ‘working smarter not harder’ became the mantra for HR professionals.  Supported by progressive workers’ rights, rapidly advancing technology and forward-thinking corporates and dot.coms, flexible working started to be seen as so much more than simply part-time hours for working mums.

And so to the noughties and the emerging and increasingly influential rise of the Millennials – the children of Baby Boomers and older Generation X-ers.  The kids with a social conscience.  The kids who don’t believe in hierarchy, but do believe in their right to a work life balance.  In 2010, in the US where a huge amount of academic study into the impact of Millennials on Corporate life has been carried out, a study by Hershetter and Epstein showed that nearly one-third of students’ top priority is to “balance personal and professional life” and that nearly 9 out of 10 Millennials placed an importance on work-life balance.  This is in contrast to the ‘work ethics’ of their Baby-Boomer parents and grand-parents.

Technology and Work-Life Integration

To many of the workers who experienced ‘Work-Life balance’ taking shape as a work concept in the eighties and nineties, it has remained just that – a concept that has never really became reality.  With the devastating effect of the global economic crisis on employment, indeed many feel they have been forced to increase their working hours.

But there has been another shift too and perhaps one that will have a far lasting impact on the way we work. According to Dean Douglas, writing for ‘Fast Company’, “the most productive leaders in business aren’t gunning for a work-life balance–that was the myth touted years ago that caused professionals to overbook their calendars and make efforts “to have it all”.”  He argues that with technology being available to everyone, 24/7, and the attitude and energy of Millennials becoming a driving force within the workplace there is a new way forward: Work Life Integration.

‘Work Life Integration’ first emerged as a term alongside ‘Work Life Balance’ in the late eighties/early nineties, particularly in the US.  At the time, the two terms pretty much meant the same thing – properly prioritising work and life outside of work. More recently, with the perceived very limited success of ‘balancing’ work and life, and especially due to rapid advancements in technology enabling most of us to work anywhere, any time, a Millennial’s version of ‘work life integration’ is now being seen by a growing number of business leaders as the solution to happy workers and high productivity.

David Solomon, the global co-head of investment banking at Goldman Sachs said in a recent New Yorker article, “Technology means that we’re all available 24/7. And, because everyone demands instant gratification and instant connectivity, there are no boundaries, no breaks.”  Using technology to integrate work into your life – the complete opposite of trying to create an equal balance between work and life outside of work –  gives us a way to manage to the nonstop work cycle and 24 hour society.  Technology means that you can dial into a conference call from the golf course or respond to emails whilst waiting at the school gate.

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