The term “work-life balance” has gotten quite a bit of buzz in recent years, thanks in part to the new priorities millennials are bringing to the workplace. This idea captures the desire to work and grow in a career, but also the desire to enjoy one’s life outside of work — with the goal of creating a meaningful sense of balance between the two.
However, it’s not just millennials who crave a healthy balance between their working lives and time spent outside the office. Because the workforce is currently juggling three different generations (not counting the bookend demographic groups of Generation Z and The Silent Generation) who view the working world in different ways, it’s important to define what “work-life balance” truly means to each of them, as it may change how employers can effectively motivate employees.
For example, employers might consider adjusting incentive programs to accommodate different needs and desires among several different generations of workers.
How Baby Boomers Feel About Work-Life Balance
The baby boomer generation encompasses the group of people born after the Second World War — between the years of 1946 and 1964. Although baby boomers are frequently described as the largest generation in history, Pew Research reports that millennials have now overtaken boomers as the largest living generation. Millennials also make up the largest demographic in the workforce today.
Because their parents lived through the Great Depression, boomers were often raised to embrace and value hard work. Many boomers took a job after college and stayed there for the majority of their careers. Boomers tend to be competitive with one another, but loyal to their employer. They’re generally known for prioritizing their jobs above other aspects of their lives. As a result, they worked (and still work) long hours, sometimes missing family events or school functions involving their kids.
For this 79 million-strong demographic, work-life balance wasn’t necessarily a goal. Those who were told frightening stories of their grandparents losing everything during the Great Depression were intent on working as hard as they could to make sure they didn’t experience the same financial challenges.
For the most part, the economy rewarded boomers for their tireless efforts. They were able to attend college, buy homes and stay in stable jobs for many decades (although this is certainly not true for all of them, as there were plenty of economic slumps and layoffs during their prime working years). Because they worked so hard for so long (and many boomers today enjoy high level positions), many people in this generation report experiencing high levels of stress.
In a somewhat cruel twist of fate, some boomers were forced to stay in the workforce longer than they intended in an effort to make up for retirement funds lost during the Great Recession. On the flipside, others were forced into early retirement and given generous severance packages. There is also a sizeable chunk of baby boomers who choose to launch a second career well past retirement age. These workers can be a tremendous asset to employers, as they bring a strong work ethic and a wealth of experience to the job.
Generation X and Work-Life Balance
Generation X refers to the group of people born between roughly 1965 and 1980. In most cases, they are the children of baby boomers. Unlike their parents, this generation is less likely to stay in one job (or even one career path) for the entirety of their working life. They don’t see anything wrong with switching to a different company or making a career change if they aren’t satisfied with their current situation.
If members of this generation watched their parents work tireless hours and miss t-ball games, they are far more likely to place value on finding a stable and comfortable work-life balance. Some social experts say that gen-Xers are the first generation in America to even utter the words “work-life balance.” For some gen-Xers, work-life balance is as simple as leaving the office early once or twice a week to catch their kid’s soccer game. For others, an ideal work-life balance means working from home one day a week to drive the kids to school or pick them up at the end of the day. These employees don’t mind working long hours, so long as employers recognize their contributions.
The bottom line is Xers enjoy flexibility — but it doesn’t take too much to make them happy. They want employers to know they can prioritize their personal lives without sacrificing the quality of their work.
Millennials and Work-Life Balance
The group of people born between 1980 and 2000 are generally placed into a broad category known as the millennial generation. Other monikers for these folks include “Generation Y” and the “Oregon Trail” generation, however, millennials seems to be the most common term.
Much like their Gen X predecessors, they don’t mind switching companies, or even industries over the course of their working years — most even expect it.
Millennials value flexibility above many things. They want to telecommute, make their own hours and might even be willing to accept a lower salary if it means wielding more choices when it comes to commanding their work schedule.
However, this doesn’t mean millennials don’t put a premium on compensation and benefits. Salary, benefits and retirement packages are important to millennials. The majority of workers in this broad category realize that pensions are a thing of the past — and most are doubtful that social security benefits will stick around long enough to see them through their golden years.
Millennials are also more likely to seek jobs — and employers — that align with their personal beliefs and goals. As Stefanie O’Connell, a millennial author and money expert, told Forbes, “For me, it’s not so much about work-life balance as it is work-life integration. I’m not driven by the prospect of working hard for the next 30 years to retire one day. I’m building a lifestyle and a career that I’d be happy to maintain for the rest of my life.”
For some millennials, work-life integration means matching up personal goals with professional ones. They’re more likely to seek out companies that share their values, and they’re more inclined to work for employers that offer opportunities to blend work with socialization. This mix of job and lifestyle has caused many companies to offer unique employee perks that attract the best and brightest millennial talent. For example, a growing number of companies offer gym memberships, philanthropic projects, team happy hours and “workations” that encourage employees to work from anywhere.
However, work-life integration is not without potential downsides. For some younger workers, a seamless mix of personal and professional life can make it hard to enjoy down time — or get any in the first place. According to one employment study, 81% of workers check their email outside work hours, and 55% say they look at their inboxes past 11 o’clock at night. As Dan Schawbel of Time Money reports, “As the first generation of digital natives, millennials are naturally gifted at managing this always-on lifestyle — and in some ways they prefer it, because of the work time flexibility it theoretically affords them — but at the same time they fear it is hurting their personal lives.” It puts a whole new spin on the old phrase “burning the candle at both ends.”
To avoid blurring the line between work life and personal time, employment experts say millennials should make an effort to prioritize personal goals — and keep them separate from professional ones. Employers can do their part by offering flexible work hours and remote opportunities. Companies like Virgin and Netflix have even adopted open vacation policies that allow workers to take random breaks whenever they need them.
Work-Life Balance at Every Age
The bottom line is that work-life balance can mean different things to different people. Employers should make an effort to understand how various employees define an ideal balance of work and personal life.
One way to do this is by surveying your workforce. Your employee benefits broker should be able to assist you with compiling a quantitative, objective and statistically valid survey — or even help you conduct qualitative focus groups, one-on-one’s or telephone interviews with your employees.
Remember that values change from generation to generation, so it’s important to stay up to date on what new generations want out of an employee benefits package. The key is to listen to your workers about what matters to them. Knowing what each demographic in your organization values will help you make the adjustments necessary to retain top talent and attract promising new recruits. We’re certain we’ll have these same discussions in the coming years as the next generation of workers graduates from college and enters the workforce with a whole new set of desires and expectations.
With telecommuting gaining popularity, it's a good idea to place guidelines around the expectations of working from home.
What does work-life balance mean to you? Leave us a comment below or contact us. We’d love to hear from you!
The JP Griffin Group consults for discerning companies coast-to-coast, ranging in size from 10 to more than 30,000 employees. In addition to our Scottsdale, Arizona headquarters, we have bi coastal offices in Seattle, WA and Washington, DC.