Sunday, August 22, 2010

Only Xers Care about Work/Life Balance

So I finally got around to reading the article in the August 2010 issue of Associations Now about Generation X moving into leadership positions in the association world. You would've thought that someone who runs a blog dedicated to "exploring generations and leadership in associations and in society" would've gotten to that a little more quickly--but, hey, what can I say? Sometimes life gets in the way.

And that's exactly the proposition I want to put in front of you today. Like a lot of articles about generations in the workplace, this one calls X out as being particularly motivated--to a degree not seen in Boomers or Millennials--by a quest for "work/life balance." One GenX leader quoted in the article says this about the potential of pursuing an executive role at an association:

"[A leadership role] is something that I am comfortable with. But at the same time, I hesitate from time to time to take on too much because I do want that balance in my life. ... It's not because I don't want to do it [or] I'm lazy. I just want to keep that balance and make sure I don't lose my personal life over my work life."

When I read that it hit me. There's a reason why work/life balance is a particular concern of Xers and not Boomers or Millennials.

Boomers long ago figured out how to make their work their life. To an Xer, this means they sold out--adopting a work ethic that subjugates the personal to the professional. Boomers are experts at using personal connections for professional gain, something I think older Xers secretly wish they were better at. To use a metaphoric cliche, Boomers took up golf not to challenge themselves as an Xer would, but because the were savvy enough to realize that business deals get done on the golf course.

Millennials, conversely, are busy figuring out how to make their life their work. To an Xer, this is even worse--shamelessly putting the self ahead of any other concern. But I sense an undercurrent of jealousy in a lot of Xer talk about Millennials. I think some Xers fear that Millennials may actually succeed in changing the game they've been struggling to play by their own set of rules. To extend the same metaphoric cliche, while the Xers are taking the Danny Noonan approach--hoping to win the caddy tournament in order to become a member of the club--Millennials are playing their own game and creating their own spaces in which to play it. It's not so much that they don't like golf. It's more that they just aren't going to do what they don't like, no matter how many business deals Boomers and Xers are cutting on the 18th green.

And this puts Xers in the middle again, the only generation who seems overly concerned with this thing called work/life balance. They want a separation between what they do for work and what they do for fun--a professional life and a personal life, both fulfilling but neither intruding on the other. But the other two generations in the Hourglass have already figured something out that X is just beginning to learn. When it comes to having a personal life and a professional life, it's tougher to manage them when you keep them separate than when you decide to push them together.


sarah said...

You can see the working environment of a company at

David M. Patt, CAE said...

The incessant division of people by generation assumes that all folks of that segment share the same values. They don't. A lot of Boomers have the same work/life balance attitudes of Millenials.

The real difference, is conformity. Some Boomers trod out to the golf course because that's what their predecessors did. A lot of association activity is conformist - do what is deemed to be acceptable to others.

Bravo for the Millenials who don't care about that.

Eric Lanke said...

Thanks for commenting, David. I agree it's wrong to assume every member of a generation shares the traits generally ascribed to that generation. But generational trends are real and they do manifest generally across the population, so there is value in trying to define them and discuss their impact on the issues we care about.

I also agree that the Millennials (as described in my post) have the best solution to the issue of work/life balance. There is no true separation, and work is a subset of life.

Jen Smith said...

I don't think working toward a work-life balance stems from not wanting to sell out or from letting go of our personal self for "the job." I think it's absolutely the opposite. Xers I know and admire choose careers they can be passionate about. So passionate that if we're not careful, the "work" side of the equation will upset the whole thing. We don't clock in and out; we think about work constantly. We don't tire. That is, if we maintain a certain level of balance between that sometimes-obsessive work thing and our families and our friends.

I think the biggest struggle an Xer faces is that we want 100% of both. As much gusto as we put into our jobs, we also put that much work and passion into our home lives.

Joe Flowers said...

I agree with David.

I wouldn't say this is an issue of work/life balance, and certainly wouldn't go so far as to say that only Xers care about a work/life balance. Saying Xers care most about a balance that is either just work or just play might be more accurate.

Boomers and Millenials care just as much about a work/life balance as Xers, just not on the same one you prescribe. To imply your way is the only way is the main headache behind all these generational discussions.

Maybe this golf analogy is a little more fair?
Some Boomers play golf to balance work and play at the same time.
Some Gen Xers play golf to break from work to play.
Some Millenials play golf for work and some for play.

Eric Lanke said...

Jen, I think you've hit on the key point--passion. The struggle people of all generations face is to pursue the things they are passionate about while making enough money to pay the bills. When I divided people into generational categories, I was really just trying to describe three ways of striking that balance: (1) Get a good job and make it your passion (Boomers); (2) Find your passion and make it your job (Millennials); (3) Get a good job and pursue your passion in your spare time (Xers).

David and Joe have appropriately called me out for painting with too broad a brush. In my defense, I personally know a lot of Xers who seem to have chosen option 3 as their preferred strategy, but I'll admit that the smartest (and bravest) people of all generations choose option 2.

Frank Fortin said...

My own bias is that the generation thing is overplayed. There may be some tendencies, but they don't explain enough.
But I think you finally got nailed the work/life thing on your last try. These three generalizations reasonably valid, at least as far as any generalizations can be, and I believe they're generation-blind. I'm a Boomer, and I've never been anything BUT category #2.

Maggie McGary said...

What Jen said. I'm an Xer who has done the millennial thing: found a passion then made it my job. But the price of having a job you're passionate about is that you want to do it all the time. I do, as Jen says, want 100% of both worlds: a fulfilling work life and a fulfilling home life. But the home life thing involves other people, who want my full attention...which kinda throws a wrench in the passion thing, because there are only 24 hours in a day. I think life was a lot simpler for Boomers; men could have careers and work around the clock because their wives were mostly home, doing the "home life" part.

Eric Lanke said...

Thanks for the additional comments, Frank and Maggie. Frank appropriately stresses the need for all generations to build their work (and their lives) around their passions, but Maggie provides a cautionary tale about pursuing a passion too exclusively and alienating the other people in your life.

The decision that some Xers have made to see their work and their life as two distinct things that need to be managed separately is in part why I write the original post. Even Maggie's dilemma, I think, can be seen as the artificial construction of a choice. If work is a subset of life, than work should follow your life passion. There should be no tension between your work passion and the life you are otherwise trying to lead. They should balance and nurture each other.

Linda said...

No one has yet mentioned that the Millenials have not yet hit the maternal/paternal/parenting wall for the most part. That's when the work/life system you've put into place often gets blown out of the water. I'd be curious to see how they weather the next 10 years of work/life. The cultural context for the older Baby Boomers was dad worked and mom stayed home - work/life solved for dad. Younger Boomers had more angst as women entered formerly male-dominated professions in greater numbers with no female role models and no support for what was still "their job" i.e. the house, kids, scheduling, etc. We can't ignore the cultural climate both in terms of corporate culture and public policy for setting the stage upon which we play out our preferences and choices regarding work and life particularly in reference to care giving of children and elders.

Eric Lanke said...

Thanks, Linda, for adding the concept of life stage into the conversation. Much of what we think of as generational attitudes have to be viewed through the prism of which stage of life the individuals in that generation are in. Each generation may act differently at each stage of life, but often the generational characteristics that are present at one stage manifest themselves very differently at another.

I wrote a post about this issue last November. Check it out at

Yadgyu said...

Being successful is more important than being a good parent or spouse.

Things cost money. Staying at home doesn’t buy things. Going out there and making as much money as possible is the best thing to do. Everyone wants to live the good life. But the good life costs. So what if you can’t make it to the softball game or the ballet recital! If you are bringing home big bucks, you are doing more for your family than any amount of time will.

How can a kid be cool if mom or dad only works 40 hours a week but brings home diddley squat? I would rather work a ton of hours and make a ton of money than come home at the same time and sit in the house with a nagging wife and bratty children. A family has to understand that having things is more important than being together. Working less is not an option!

Eric Lanke said...

Thanks for sharing your unique perspective, Yadgyu. It's a wonder you have time to read blogs with how busy you must be working so hard. Enjoy your good life!

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