For a concept that’s everywhere nowadays, the idea of work-life balance is, historically speaking, a relatively recent development. Between the transition to agriculture and the industrial revolution, the vast majority of people worked on farms, in which case they basically labored from sunup to sundown. Even post-industrial workers spent an average of 80+ hours on the job each week, which included working on weekends.
In America at least, the situation didn’t change until the 40-hour workweek was inscribed into law in 1940, though some employees had gotten a taste a bit earlier—like those of Henry Ford, who, when he wasn’t busy publishing antisemitic pamphlets, loved to experiment with new management techniques. In 1922, he implemented a 9–5 schedule and a five-day workweek after he discovered that reduced hours actually made his workers more productive. The specific number of 40 came from Welsh labor activist Robert Owen, who invented the slogan “eight for labor, eight for recreation, eight for rest” after noticing—as Herman Cain would decades later with his 9-9-9 plan—that repeating the same number three times in a row is really catchy.
The actual term “work-life balance” didn’t come into common use until the U.K. feminist movement of the 1980’s, when it was tied to specific demands like flexible scheduling and paid leave for new mothers. The “life” in this case was not life in general, but rather child-rearing specifically. Nonetheless, the term caught on, exploding in usage in the internet era, when new technologies made it possible to “work” (for white-collar workers, at least) even when you weren’t in the office.
I’m all for “work-life balance” as a slogan for labor activists. But as a personal goal, I think it’s often a mistake. The happiest people I know all tend to have work-life imbalance—but, crucially, that imbalance can go in either direction. Some are deeply devoted to their work, often at the expense of other activities. Others are focused primarily on living a good life, with their work a distant second.
In fact, I actually think that most people who claim to want work-life balance are being disingenuous, though perhaps unintentionally. In many cases, what they really want is for their life to take priority over their work, usually by a wide margin. But they don’t feel like they can come right out and say that—maybe they’re worried about facing consequences from their employer, or maybe they’ve internalized the zeitgeisty idea that we should love our jobs—so they settle for requesting the less-offensive “balance” instead. (This whole thing is, of course, a middle- and upper-class phenomenon: your average barista is probably totally comfortable saying they want to work as little as possible, and doesn’t feel any cultural pressure to “love” making lattes.)
In the right situations, there can be great joy and beauty in pushing as hard as you can on your work, even if other aspects of your life suffer, because work and sacrifice are part of what give life meaning. Obviously, you can take this too far—you don’t want to completely deprioritize your family, friends, and health—but that doesn’t mean everything has to be totally balanced. After my startup failed, I spent a year only working around 15 hours a week. (If I’d been able to afford to, I would have not worked at all.) That was the right choice at the time given how much I needed to let my body and brain recover, but work’s absence from my life that year was hardly enriching. Doing nothing can be rewarding, but only up to a point.
One place this analysis can get a little bit fuzzy is in the distinction between work and employment. My current job is demanding, and I put a lot of energy into it, but it doesn’t completely take over my life. You could say I have work-life balance—except that I fill many of my remaining hours on other projects, like this newsletter, which, while maybe not strictly “work,” aren’t exactly not work either. In order to pursue them successfully, I’ve found I have to commit to them as seriously as I’d commit to an actual job, which means that in a way I don’t have work-life balance at all.
Which is not to say I’ll work like this forever. There’s a sense in which I do still want work-life balance—I just want it over the course of my entire life, not in any one specific period. In the long term, I expect to oscillate between periods of intense work and intense non-work, depending on what phase of my life I’m in. It’s essentially a barbell strategy approach: recognizing that the best way to maximize the benefits of two opposing extremes is not to find some illusory “balance” between them, but instead to get some exposure to each of them.
In the meantime, I’ll continue avoiding the term “work-life balance.” If I must, I’ll use “work-life harmony,” “work-life Jenga,” or even just “life.” After all, the biggest illusion the term “work-life balance” creates is that work—however you define it—is something entirely outside of life, instead of an essential part of it.