A 21st Century Way of Life: From 20th Century Work-Life Balance to Lifeworking

This is a way of life that does not try to separate life and work into two distinct and seemingly incompatible spheres, but instead meshes both into a new way of thinking about a life journey in the 21st century.
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This is a series of joint posts with Jamie Anderson, a speaker, author and cyclist. He is co-author of the "Fine Art of Success" and cofounder of ConnectedVisions.Eu.

Many organizations are still running work-life programs, which quite frankly are an antiquated 20th century management practice. In the last century, social convention demanded that we see ourselves as two separate people: There was who we were at work and who we were in our personal life. And our job was to balance those two people. Often, you would find yourself working with people who you knew very little about, having no idea what happened in their lives outside of the job unless you made a conscious effort to find out.

There were entire generations of workers who were told they could not fully bring who they are to work and yet, needed to balance their work and personal life. How was that even possible for some of us? We know and have been people who were in stressful environments that required us to dedicate 70-90 hours a week to work. And we did it because we thought that's what we needed to do to be successful. We also know way too many people who feel like failures because they cannot achieve the unattainable work-life balance. And what we ask is why do we need to in the 21st century?


Why do we need to redefine success?

When you think about it, the very definition of the term work-life balance is part of the problem. We have all experienced the "success trap" to some degree -- the manner in which so many career professionals find themselves on a path towards promotion, responsibility and accountability that slowly but surely absorbs energy from other meaningful life activities.

Some people define themselves by and through their work, and therefore have no sense of the conflicts that we are talking about. And there are many other people who are now questioning what success means to them and it is starting to happen in all age groups. A myth that we often hear is that it is only the millennial generation that is bringing this shift to the workplace. Millennials are indeed bringing massive change and questioning many antiquated management practices, but people in other age groups are also starting to question these practices as they seek more meaning in their life.

How did we get here?

Since the turn of the century the higher education systems in much of the Western world have worked towards standardization of learning according to the functional division of labor. By the age of 15 or 16, and even earlier in some countries, individuals are put on an educational track that leads them into increasingly specialized learning paths. The bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees originally awarded by European universities have been adopted in the most diverse societies throughout the world, and while generalist degrees do exist, degrees in fields such as accounting and finance, commerce, engineering, information systems, law and medicine have become increasingly prominent.

As a student progresses further and further up the educational hierarchy, the more functionally specialized their learning tends to become. This linear educational path often then sets an individual onto a more or less linear career path -- law students become lawyers, engineering students become engineers and accounting students become accountants. And once in an organization, career paths often unfold in an equally linear way -- first as an individual contributor within a functional department, then team leader and on to middle and sometimes senior management in the same function.

Something else starts to happen on this linear educational and professional track -- as we progress we are ranked and compared to others, typically according to a narrow range of performance criteria. First are academic grades, and then organizational performance indicators such as productivity or sales results. Indeed, achievement of these metrics often provides the basis for the next stage of progression. As we progress, we start to accrue artifacts of recognition -- degree certificates and job titles, for example. So it is not surprising that many career professionals start to define their success -- and sometimes their identity -- through the accrual of these artifacts by their late twenties and early thirties. For some people these artifacts become important indicators of social status and position, and become a kind of career snobbery whereby one evaluates the value of another according to the academic and career achievements that they have attained.

Why are we stuck in a 20th century work-life myth and what can we do?

The reason that organizations have been slow to truly rethink the concept of work-life is due more to cultural inertia than any other factor. The industrial-age assumptions about technology, organization and processes have become deeply ingrained within society, and have been reinforced through general and business education and the media. In most organizations these deeply entrenched assumptions have become orthodoxy, and this is why the question of work-life balance remains. Some enlightened organizations have made progress in some areas, especially with regard to virtual working and flexible working time, but in most cases these initiatives only patch the much deeper underlying problems

The continuing adherence to the industrial-age mind-set means that it is impossible for high-achieving knowledge workers to achieve a true work-life balance in most established organizations. Therefore we propose three possible paths for high achievers:

  1. Re-negotiate the terms of engagement with the existing organization to better integrate other life goals. This requires a track record of high performance (e.g., an ability to demonstrate one's value to the organization), trusted relationships with senior management and peers, and willingness for the organization to be output rather than input focused. The organization and the individual need to rethink performance targets and rewards to boost intrinsic motivation, and in some cases to accept that promotion to wider levels of responsibility is not an objective -- at least for the time being. The shift might also require the individual to develop stronger skills in collaboration as the transition to lifeworking within an established organization typically involves greater task sharing with others.

  • Create or join an organization (often small) that rejects industrial-age work orthodoxy. Such organizations are often less locked into the kind of industrial age organizational orthodoxy that we describe in our exhibit "Evolution of the Organization." They reject a philosophy of scarcity in favour of embracing abundance, and are comfortable to provide individuals with a greater degree of autonomy over how they achieve performance goals.
  • Become a "free agent," and offer knowledge as a consultant, advisor or interim manager. This approach delivery a key element of lifeworking -- autonomy. But it requires self-belief, resilience and a commitment to lifelong learning. In our experience, it might also require the individual to learn how to network with other free agents, moneitze their skills, configure Outlook email on a SmartPhone, network a printer, set-up multi-party videoconferences on Skype, and find the best flight deals.
  • What ever choice they make and sometimes people choose more than one option, individuals need to be the ones driving the shift towards lifework, and not wait for organizations to create the necessary environment.

    Jamie and I believe that in the 21st century, we are all seeking purposeful living and what we call lifeworking. This is a way of life that does not try to separate life and work into two distinct and seemingly incompatible spheres, but instead meshes both into a new way of thinking about a life journey in the 21st century. The next article in this series will focus on defining purpose.


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