Work/Life Balance and Labor Day

Labor Day parade, Main St., Buffalo, N.Y.

Labor Day in the U.S. is almost here. Many other countries also celebrate a labor day, which has always seemed an unusual event to me. We didn’t celebrate such a day at all until Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City. Interestingly, this is a date that coincides well with the world’s entry into the impersonal and mechanistic 20th century.

I have been noodling for quite some time over the work/life balance movement. I call it a movement because it really came about unexpectedly around 15 years or so ago and has swept corporate America from coast to coast.

I can’t think of any organization that has not had to change policies or at least address its employees about the issue. The work/life balance movement is an interesting phenomenon. I don’t think there has been a previous era when there was such an emphasis on specifically setting aside time for non-work activities.

It is a logical outcome of decades of isolating work from other aspects of life. The idea of creating a balance is based on a set of assumptions that aren’t questioned, yet are very strange from the perspective of a Baby Boomer such as myself or from that of anyone who has studied the history of work.

Assumptions About Work

If I were to state the assumptions, they would go something like this: Work is something we do for money, is generally not very enjoyable and interferes with more important things like family.

We should be required to spend as little time as possible “at work” as it interferes with things we would rather be doing. It also subtly assumes that we all must be physically at some other place than home when we work.

The end result is a belief that work should be regulated and time with our families should be made mandatory. The work/life balance cause assumes a more or less digital world: work is on or off, family/life is on or off. For them it seems strange or impossible to have work you get paid for that is your life.

History of Work

Yet, for centuries work and life were co-joined. It is only in the past century that we have physically separated most paid work from the home.

Throughout all of history people have toiled in fields, worked in small shops, bazaars and at home without paychecks, labor laws, or a day off. Women and men shared skills and children were almost always part of the working and life equation as soon as they were old enough. Work might not have been fun in our modern sense, but it was a family activity and it was the fabric of life. Hobbies, travel, and other pleasurable activities were limited by the call of nature and the needs of the community.

Many people ended up doing things that were not of their choosing, but were inherited from fathers or were available at the time they were looking. The classic global example is that of the farmer. On every farm the entire family participated from an early age in the work. Even learning was a family activity, and fathers and sons often co-invented things or passed their knowledge to each succeeding generation.

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The modern separation of work from family, learning, and pleasure was the result of the economic expediency found in isolating work in factories and offices. By overseeing the work, owners could ensure efficiency and focus and over the past century has led to increasing levels of work specialization. Often no one in a family understands what other members actually do.

A New Chapter

This is rapidly changing and the work/life movement will wither away over the next few years as people begin to find ways to develop their passion and dreams into paid work that they can do at home or near home when and as much as they want.

Young folks, the Gen Y or Millenniums, are rejecting the work/life notions, much to the chagrin of their elder Gen X colleagues. Gen Y tends to look for work they are passionate about and then they tend to work in ways foreign to Gen X. They take any sense of balance away and may work for days without a stop or not work much at all for some time. They try to choose meaningful and interesting work and embrace it with a passion only seen once in a while with Gen X or Baby Boomers.

Baby Boomer are finding ways to have second careers doing what they thought was a hobby for money. Consultants are more common than ever and offer a variety of services virtually as well as physically. The Internet and the slow withering of corporate life as we have known it for a half-century will radically alter how we think about recruitment and learning.

As work returns slowly to individuals, entrepreneurs, small shops, and small organizations, we will see more and more integration between work and life. More spouses will work together and more children will be part of that work. The days of specialization, physical separation, and mental isolation are ending, I think and hope. We have traversed across a century of change to return to where we started.

Let’s hope we won’t need legislated labor days anymore, as every day will be both one of family and work intertwined as it has been through most of history.

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


8 Comments on “Work/Life Balance and Labor Day

  1. Very thoughtful Kevin. In past times, only the very elite could function in a mode where being themselves (so to speak) was the job. The democratizing power of the Internet (and the “Internet” must be considered the complex of networks, data, and their uses beyond the medium itself) allows skilled people to participate in organizations in previously impossible ways.

    Many sub-optimal institutions developed around frictions in the real-world so as to be affordable at all: mass education, mass military, mass production. Those activites take real tolls on workers- they do to this day- and were only really possible in their old forms with one parent working outside the household, which of course was most often a man.

    The transformation has firmly begun, but it has not barely begun to unwind many now maladapted institutions, including corporate life, but especially governance on ALL levels and a historic and inevitable headwinds toward decline in national wealth as the scars of WW2 faded away in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Our political response has been maladaptive as well- every measure of American well-being seems to have peaked around 1980.

    If the powers of information technology and the American character do prevail, it will be through the enforcement of more honest governance. Our use of guard labor (in the economic sense- has gone up four-fold, but it may need to climb yet more before we are in a better place.

    That’s a tall order at a dark moment, but we all know that too many people are either being held-back or over-rewarded by the current setup, and that these imbalances apply across the wide world and always will. Work/life balance is a very big matter……

    You certainly hit it tha

    It is a logical outcome of decades of isolating work from other aspects of life


  2. While the origins of Labor Day may seem arcane to the modern world, its celebration of the labor movement may be on the cusp of a renaissance. Unions were formed in response to the abuses of late 19th and early 20th century employers. Unions helped force the creation of the weekend, the 8-hour workday and the minimum wage. Even employer-paid insurance was a union brokered concept in the late 40s. All were passed over strident opposition from business interests. Now, all of these benefits are being incessantly broken down and discarded. Employers are focused on getting labor as cheaply as possible. So workers are beginning to sense the need to organize to voice their grievances. Labor Day may soon be more relevant than ever. 😉

  3. I agree with both Martin and Mark, and I do not like the idea of us evolving toward an on-call 24 X 7 X 365 society without boundaries between work and non-work or between work and family. Furthermore, evidence is showing us that too much data ( and multi-tasking ( actually hinders our productivity.



  4. Mark and Keith,
    It’s not about what we want, wish or like. All the signs are pointing to a workforce that will increasingly be self-employed on-and-off or permanently throughout life. Developing personal mastery and the ability to combine work with life will be a core competency for success. The corporate world may exist for a handful of people, but even that will look vastly different. Our 20th century view of labor is totally out-of-date.

  5. Mr. Wheeler,

    This is my first time visiting this blog. I was so impressed with your message that I registered just to be able to say “Thank You”.

    The fact that work has become so impersonal is at the root of this relatively short term trend of needing to define a work life balance, as you suggest, is absolutely true. Certainly the assumptions that you offer explain clearly why this trend has come upon us.

    The part of your work that I like the most is the clear message that you send that life has not always been as it is today. People were much more entrepreneurial in the distant past than in the recent past. And generations cooperated rather than shouting at each other across a gap.

    Your vision that we are returning to a day of earning a living from exploring our passions is exciting. I think we see that now as we baby boomers rush toward becoming lifestyle entrepreneurs. And as we earn that living we will be working with or around younger generations. Combining work with life sounds like a good future.

    Shallie Bey
    Smarter Small Business Blog

  6. Call me “Gloomy Gus,” but I really don’t see a big, bright, wonderful future where we’re all Web 3.X- empowered “home-trepreneurs” with our work and play all nicely mixed together. I remember when we were supposed to commute to our 32-hour/week jobs (“Or mchines will liberate us from drudgery!”) on high-speed monorail trains. Also IMHO, if the Feds hadn’t bailed out Wall Street (at our expense), we’d be right in the middle of a Cyberpunk novel, complete with economic depression.

    In a nutshell, unless things change fairly significantly from where they seem to be going, I anticipate a very good world indeed for a small number (a few million) of well-to-do Americans, and stagnation or decline for most us us.

    Keith “Would Rather be Happy than Right” Halperin

  7. Keith there are a lot of bright things happening as well- recall that the 30’s were also the golden age of aviation and maybe even American culture amid the crush of the Depression.

    Chinese demographics, genetic medicine, and alt-energy (among others) may hugely effect wealth generation within 20 years or so, and Info Tech is just finding its legs- I would not short Intel Corp in the medium to long run.

  8. “As work returns slowly to individuals, entrepreneurs, small shops, and small organizations, we will see more and more integration between work and life.”

    Yes, seeing this now.

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