Figuring Out Work-Life Balance

Everyone talks about work-life balance. It drips from the lips of recruiters and HR folks and jumps off the pages of recruiting web sites. Articles touting the “Best Companies to Work For” include it as one of their criteria.

Yet, deep inside, we all know that almost no one ever achieves any balance. We either choose to mostly work or to mostly stay home, raise the kids, and dabble with a career.

The generational differences are huge in regards to work-life balance. As a baby boomer, I can honestly say that the concept never entered my head or my wife’s until a few years ago.

We accepted the fact that we would struggle to raise a family and both work, and that one of us would work “less” than the other to compensate. We didn’t even talk about it, because it was just the way it was.

Of course, unfairly, it was most often the woman who “lessened” her career. Recruiters talked about how challenging positions would be, not how much flexibility one might have. Time ruled and everyone was expected to put in at least an eight-hour day and a 40-hour week, and usually much more.

Gen X, those ranging in age roughly from 30 to 45, began to change this mindset in the 1980s by insisting that family was as important as a job and both had to co-exist in some sort of balance. Thus, the term work-life balance was coined.

Since then, companies have struggled and agonized over ways to achieve this balance. Some have offered on-site child-care, some flexible work time, some telecommuting, and some all of those.

Jobs were shared and managers where expected to show compassion and flexibility in dealing with family issues. HR polices have been tweaked to offer more exceptions and more flexible approaches to family illness and parent care. Some states have legislated more time off for pregnant or sick workers.

Yet, most of us don’t feel very balanced.

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Gen Y, or the Millennials as some call them, range in age from the late teens to the late twenties. They have chosen a slightly different view of things, I think. Most of the Gen Ys I speak with have specific views about work balance.

I sum them up as follows:

  1. They accept the fact that there is no such thing as work-life balance.
  2. Therefore, they generally do not get involved with family commitments as early as boomers or Gen X did. They are not marrying as young. In 1950, men married on average at 23 and women at 20. In 2003, men averaged 27 and women 25. Nor are they having as many children. Fifty-seven percent of U.S. households in 1998 consisted of one or two people. This compares with 78.2% in 1950.
  3. They are also choosing to create a sustainable lifestyle for the amount they wish to work. Those who want to travel and have personal time, choose to work part-time or in jobs with great flexibility. They do not have children and do not buy houses and expensive cars. Gen Y, for the most part, is much less focused on large material possessions. Those who are more career-oriented are choosing organizations where work is intense but satisfying. They are beating down the doors at Google, Yahoo!, and other organizations that offer exciting, leading-edge work. They want opportunities and challenges more than they want a job and a career just so they can raise a family.

They are not thinking about balance at all. They tip the scales one way or the other and seem content for now. This means we have three very different views about life, family, and work. This puts recruiters, hiring managers, and organizations in a tight spot.

What can recruiters do to attract and keep these different generations?

  • Tailor messages and jobs and match them to the right person. It’s not easy or even smart to have the same messages for each generation. Smart recruiters are tailoring their messages to the generations they are seeking and are working with hiring managers to create a variety of jobs within the organization that appeal to the spectrum of generations. Many organizations have part-time positions, shared positions, and others jobs that are clearly designed for someone willing to sacrifice a lot for the opportunity. Positions need to be classified and advertised according to the level of flexibility and expected commitment. As people are interviewed for positions, their willingness to accept the job commitments are critical in making hiring decisions. What is missing today is a realistic assessment of what commitment the job requires and what flexibility is acceptable.
  • Change the reward structure. Every organization also needs to realize that some of the things they need to get done will take people willing to go the extra mile, and those people will expect to be rewarded for that level of commitment. Rewards will have to be adjusted to better fit the time/commitment/flexibility equation for that position. For example, someone who is expected to spend half their time traveling and working in a global environment with phone calls at all hours and virtual meetings at odd times should be rewarded differently than someone who can count on a regular set of hours and a constant workplace.
  • Open the lines of communication and discussion. Recruiters should sponsor executive briefings, conduct interviews, and spend time getting the word out to everyone in the organization that times are different and that the way organizations structure work must change. Websites and blogs can help. I recommend The Future of Work Weblog and They have lots of good information and facts to help make your case.

Not everyone in a generation is the same and there are, of course, great variations in needs and expectations.

However, I think it is safe to say that when organizations set out clear expectations about the work and recruit accordingly, they have less turnover and less discontent than when they assume every generation thinks the same.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at


10 Comments on “Figuring Out Work-Life Balance

  1. I get tired of hearing about generational differences. I think what we see is that as different groups of people enter the workforce they begin to change the way we all look at work and what we want out of it.

    Last week I did a presentation with over 200 people in it representing a cross section of all of the generations. When I placed 4 statements on the board and ask each participant to rank them as their key motivators on a scale of 1-4. Interesting work came out as number one across all generations. Number to was positive relationship with manager and co-workers. Number three was work life balance and number four was money.

    Now in each group there were some people who rank something differently because but it is not a case of generations it is a case of where you are at this time in your life.

    It al boils down to one thing you need to motivate people the way they want to be motivated and not the way you want to motivate them. Now I don’t know what the answer to what motivates people is but there is one simple way to find out and that is to just ask them. But you better remember to keep asking the question because the answer will keep changing.

    So get off of the generational gap and start treating people as individuals and not as groups.

  2. This article totally contridicts what was in the USA Today newspaper wrote this week. Generation Y is much more fixed on material possessions, having money and being famous.

  3. First and foremost, I absolutely loved the article! In my opinion I feel there is a lost generation though, what I have deemed the XY?ers. Generation X is roughly age 30 ? 45 and Generation Y roughly cover those in their late teens to late twenties ? XY?ers (my generation) are about 28 – 33. I feel this article speaks to us, caught between a very materialistic younger culture and a family-oriented GenX culture. This is the first article that I have read that captures what us XY?ers experience on a day to day basis. What I have found to be true with my peers is exactly Kevin spoke of ?choosing to create a sustainable lifestyle for the amount they wish to work.? Which basically sums up why I left a ?good job? at 28 to start my own business? flexibility. Kevin discusses a desire for ?opportunities and challenges?, I feel that the underlying foundation for that, is XY?ers driving motivation to maintain the very carefully constructed lifestyle they have created ? be it part-time, yet interesting work to raise a family; owning your own business; or working for a heavy-hitter such as Google or Yahoo!. It is important for employers to recognize that XY?ers have a great deal to contribute in not just the work they perform but also in the culture of the company and the potential they have to continue to grow and contribute. Thanks Kevin for the excellent article!

  4. I think the most recent USA Today article on Gen Y ( cited in the comment above is pretty condescending and grossly generalizes Gen Y. Based on my personal and professional experiences with Gen Y candidates, an older USA Today article seems to sum them up much more accurately (and is a bit closer to Kevin’s portrayal):

    ‘Work-life balance isn’t just a buzz word. Unlike boomers who tend to put a high priority on career, today’s youngest workers are more interested in making their jobs accommodate their family and personal lives. They want jobs with flexibility, telecommuting options and the ability to go part time or leave the workforce temporarily when children are in the picture.

    ‘There’s a higher value on self fulfillment,’ says Diana San Diego, 24, who lives with her parents in San Francisco and works on college campuses helping prepare students for the working world through the Parachute College Program. ‘After 9/11, there is a realization that life is short. You value it more.’

  5. The blanket statements that you made about Gen Y (ME and my friends) I find totally off base and slightly offensive. It felt like a bit of a slap in the face that we either decide to have a family and become a waitress or we selfishly put off families to have careers. The 2003 statistic is really more a representation of the Gen X group than of the Gen Y crowd considering the OLDEST of the gen Y’ers was around 25 years old. In fact the majority of Gen Y is still in collge. The top end of it is 30 and the bottom end is 17. I think this article relates to Gen X employees much better. And no, we are not the same….Yes, baby boomers did not look at the work life balance because times were different.

    40 years ago – People could afford to own a home, have a car, have 2 kids, go on vacation all on one persons (generally the husband) salary.

    Today – Most people don’t have the option of even working part time. I live 30+ miles outside of a major metropolitan city and in order to get a 1500 sq foot house in a decent (not great) school district you are paying close to $200K. Couple that with the fact that we all HAD to go to college if we wanted to get a job, most of us didn’t have someone to pay for it and graduated with anywhere from $30-$150 thousand in student loans. Combine that with the average starting salary for college grads is less than $30,000 and daycare runs around $900/month per child and you have a situation that is totally different than most boomers can honestly imagine. Obviously, if you come from a family that is more financial stable than the majority of the country that doesn’t happen.

    1. They accept the fact that there is no such thing as work-life balance. Wrong, I accept the fact that there isn’t a work-life balance at most large companies that tout the fact they have a work-life balance. What many really mean is that you can work here and have a life outside of here. It is why so many people our age are working with smaller businesses or starting our own companies. The rules have changed and big business needs to catch up before they loose the retiring boomers and the Gen Y crowd.

    2. Family committment thing I agree with – however, many of the people I talk to wish they COULD have a family, but are afraid of the impact their career would have and the outrageous cost of child care. For many of the companies with on site child care, you have to have reached a certain level (manager) or have been with the company a set period of time before you can even pay to bring your kids there. Often, it is much more expensive than other local childcare options. On the flip side, I had kids younger than the average and know a lot of other successful people who did.

    3. They are also choosing to create a sustainable lifestyle for the amount they wish to work. Those who want to travel and have personal time, choose to work part-time or in jobs with great flexibility. They do not have children and do not buy houses and expensive cars. This is the one that really got me. The people who I do know that are traveling and having a lot of personal time are those with a family and nice homes. People don’t have to trade in one on the other. And while I never thought I would defend how materialistic we are as a generation, we are crazy! Show me 10 Gen Y’ers and I will show you a large percentage have an Ipod, a SideKick/Envy/Blackberry name brand purses, etc. While we don’t go to the extremes with the homes and cars that generations of the past did, the material possessions Gen Y goes after is more about their day to day life.

    How should a company proceed? By understanding what their employees (Current and potential) want in a work place and living up to it.

  6. For those of you with experience with the Gen Y group, for the most part, you have experience with the GenXY, like was mentioned by Jennifer Lee. The issues that alot of people are linking to Gen Y are not just because it is Gen Y – rather the age you are being exposed to them. Remember, the oldest of the Gen Y is only 28-29! Even baby boomers were thought to be a certain way when they were 22-24….

  7. Sarah –

    To be able to buy a 1500’house in a decent school district 30 miles outside a major metropolitan area for $200k is a luxury Californians (state average approaching 500k) and some other major metropolitan areas (NY, Boston, etc) don’t have. Orange County used to be the affordable ‘bedroom suburb’ of LA, peaked at $705k a year ago, currently $665k. Condos are $450k. Oh well.

  8. The whole generational debate has always reminded me of the Chinese restaurant placemat horoscopes: ‘people born in this year are all cut from the same cloth.’ Nonsense. The real truth, IMHO, is that the differences in attitudes and values are more closely linked to age. As a Gen X’er (on the baby boomer end ofthe spectrum), so much of what the ‘experts’ attribute to Gen Y was totally true of me and my peers when we entered the workforce 20 years ago. To make things a bit more complex, shifting fashions/trends probably percolate through different age groups differently. (e.g., MySpace use.) But to suggest that there are deep, inherent and permanant differences between generations … don’t drink that kool aid!

  9. No one likes to be ‘boxed’ into a stereotype, but cultures evolve and the landscape in which you are raised colors your expectations of the world. Work-life balance is still an issue for Gen Y, but it’s significance is different due to something we’ve all discussed before – permaconnectedness! Technology has brought us all together. While it has made it easier to be at home and still be productive employees, our personal time is more increasingly interrupted. It is questionable whether this has increased or decreased the amount and quality of our personal time.

    For those who believe this generational analysis is just hooey, I ask them to look at their company’s marketing materials and messages. Knowing your audience is critical to marketing. When you are trying to attract top employees, you are marketing your company (or client) and your opportunity. Tailoring your message to appeal to a target demographic is smart, effective marketing. If you need someone entry-level, there is nothing discriminatory in including information that has been proven to appeal to gen y. (BTW, the research that I found states that features and benefits are more important than status).

    I am on the cusp between Gen X and Y. My close circle includes members of both. I went to 14 weddings in 2005 (besides my own) because both my younger friends and my older friends were getting married. To support what was already said, in 2003 those who were 27 would be Gen X, not Y. Actually, we are witnessing a retro-trend: Gen Yers are getting married YOUNGER than Gen X. (

    A message to Gen Y/X: Don’t let other generations define YOU! Your generations have the tools to spread information like a virus. Use it to inform the masses what you are all about. Educate the companies that will so desperately need your talents what is going to bring you on board! Exercise control over the world’s perception of you as you exercise more control over your life and career than could have been afforded by generations past!

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