Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

What’s in a “Work-Life Balance?”

Can we just retire the phrase work-life balance already? One, because what does it even mean anymore. And two, because it’s dumb. And three, because nobody likes it and it can’t sit with us.

Okay, but seriously. The other day, I came across some writing or another that was promoting something purporting to help people find work/life balance.

And I was just like, I can’t with this phrase anymore. I just can’t. In this article, I discuss a few reasons why:

It presumes work and life are separate.

The first reason it’s an unhelpful phrase is that it presumes that work and life are totally separate. Not the case. Your work is a part of your life. If you believe that you have work in one area and then life in another, you support the belief that you’re not living when you’re working.

With this belief, you might be more willing to tolerate work that you don’t enjoy. Because, you believe, enjoyment can be saved for your “life,” which, presumably, you do enjoy.

The origins of the phrase align with this idea. According to the internet, “work-life balance” was first popularized alongside the UK’s women’s rights’ movement. The women who coined and asserted the phrase sought reform that would allow working mothers to work fewer hours so that they could spend more time on childcare.

Noble goals. But, what should be apparent is that it also implied that women have two domains of importance — work and rearing children, and that these two are of equal value. (It also presumes that “life” for women is managing the home, which is a completely different topic!)

Nowadays, the phrase presumes that “life” encompasses more than that for women, perhaps.

But it still creates this supremacist view of work in that it is, essentially, placed on par with living itself.

It’s probably no wonder we have this view, given the greed-capitalism machine we inhabit.

It’s probably no wonder our work and life often play tug of war for our attention and energy and time.

And it’s also probably no wonder when work rarely loosens its grip on that thick caustic rope, leaving life left kneeling in the center.

I believe we ought not to believe that work and our lives are so separate. So that we don’t subject ourselves to work that we don’t really love. Instead, we can have both. We can enjoy a life that supports our work. We can enjoy work that reflects who we are, not just what we do.

So that’s one reason the phrase needs to go. It presumes that work and life are separate and by doing so, exalts the significance of work.

Here’s another reason:

It oversimplifies the meaning of work.

I would guess that most people understand “work”in the phrase “work/life balance” to mean— essentially — your job.

That is, when we say “work” we mean whatever it is that you do at your job. And by job, we generally mean the activities a person does in service of an institution for which they are paid salary or wages.

That’s just my guess. Work = job. Job = someone else paying you to do things.

That’s a pretty narrow definition of work!

And I’ll take it one step further. These days, “work” means sitting at a computer and, perhaps, producing things with the assistance of that computer. Yes?

(I understand that there are people whose work does not involve them mostly sitting in front of a computer. But, oddly enough, these aren’t usually the people I hear talking about work/life balance.)

So that’s even more narrow.

And! That’s like not even 1% of what is work.

Put differently, another reason why the phrase needs to be retired is because it gives short shrift to all of the ways one can do “work” in their lives.

I’m not even talking about housework, but I’m talking about that too. I’m also talking about raising children, taking care of sick relatives, committing to self discovery and healing, exercising, pursuing creative endeavors, fighting for justice in your daily life (Yes! People do this when they aren’t receiving money or attention! Hard to believe, I know.).

To be clear, this is a short list.

Because to me, anything that causes you to confront and stay in discomfort for sustained periods of time is — 100%, undoubtedly, without question — work. (And yes, I’m also talking about love, obviously. That’s what I’m always talking about.)

And of course, people can “work” all day and never do this. Because they aren’t necessarily working. They are at a job. Big difference.

Le sigh.

So on today, let’s retire that phrase. Let’s ask ourselves how the hell we got so far astray that we consider sitting at a computer all day, work. Why we glorify the work we (maybe) do in our jobs and demean the work that we do each day for ourselves and each other.

Let’s let it go and just say what we really mean:

Job/life balance.

Maybe then we will truly see what it is we actually do.



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