I have been seeing and hearing more from my friends, acquaintances, and even total strangers about “work-life balance.” It has really been setting me off. Sometimes I have very strong opinions about relatively minor things. At least, they seem like minor things to other people. “Work-life balance” is exactly one of these things. I am bothered because the choice of words in the phrase is fundamentally incorrect, but I’m even more bothered because of what this improper word choice reveals about our culture.
The Words are Wrong
Like any true curmudgeon, I have a huge problem with the choice of terms here. The choice of terms in “work-life balance” carries a lot of assumptions with it that I’m not willing to tacitly endorse by using the phrase. The opposite of work is not life. I don’t stop being alive when I am at work. Even when I had a terrible job in the kitchen at a Papa John’s restaurant in High School, I was definitely still alive. The fact is that work is part of my life.
If I were looking for the proper words, I would probably pick leisure, or relaxation. These are what we’re talking about anyway, right? I mean, I know a lot of parents of young children who work, and they have problems with work-life balance even when they are working less than people without children, because people caring for young children have essentially no leisure time. That non-work time is all filled up with keeping other humans alive and agonizing that you aren’t keeping them alive perfectly enough to keep up with their peers.
The final word is just as bad. “Balance” carries a lot of baggage. It implies that these two extremes must be actively managed, which makes sense until you start thinking about who is supposed to be doing that management. In nearly every usage of the phrase that I have seen, the responsibility to balance these two goals is presented as belonging to the individual only, and not to any employer or to society. At best the employer is presented as an enabler of “work-life balance,” not as its champion. Discussions around achieving “work-life balance” typically involve things like having flexible hours or working from home. Here’s the thing: you can’t achieve balance without changing the load. If many people in your industry are having problems with work-life balance, it is not a flexibility problem, it is a work load problem.
Word Choice Matters
The thing is, if this were just an issue of poor word choice, the curmudgeon in me would complain, but I would just move on. But something more is going on here. The phrase “work-life balance” places these two ideas at opposite ends of a dialectic tension, which serves to draw hard lines around work in ways that we often take for granted because they are common in modernized economies. The truth is that these hard lines are largely an exception from the perspective of human history. The homestead was the site of a majority of work for most of recorded human existence. Even when work didn’t occur in the family residence, the family often spent time at the place of work. The separation of work and the rest of our lives is both artificial and recent. It is also, I think, harmful.