What does work-life balance mean in 2023? Different things, depending on who you are.
The definition of work-life balance
Generally speaking, a work-life balance means you’re able to find a split between how much time you spend working and how much time you have to take care of personal responsibilities and enjoy living life outside of work. That balance, however, is unique to each and every person. It doesn’t always mean a 50-50 split—your ideal work-life balance should be whatever helps you function best.
Work-life balance, or often a lack thereof, is inextricably linked to mental and physical wellbeing. We all have responsibilities outside of work, and if we’re overworking ourselves to the point of burnout, completing personal tasks can feel extremely burdensome and exhausting.
Hustle culture, a lifestyle that gained popularity in recent years in which workers prioritize constant productivity over rest, shuns the idea of work-life balance.
“Hustle culture requires that you keep going despite prolonged stress and exhaustion, which is then rewarded with praise and props from other ‘hustlers,’” says life coach Shanita Liu. “This culture does not openly praise folks who make their self-care a priority, and without the messaging that self-care is key to growth on all levels, the energy-depleting behaviors continue and the fast-paced lifestyle gets further perpetuated.”
InHerSight data indicates that many women want to leave hustle culture behind in order to have more time to take care of their wellbeing. We asked over 1,300 women how they would use their free time if their company benefits covered a household or life task like cleaning, automotive care, grocery shopping, or laundry. The majority (61 percent) said they’d use that extra free time to prioritize their mental, physical, and emotional health.
Work-life balance wasn’t always related to health and wellbeing, though. Let’s explore how individual work-life balance shifts based on a variety of factors, and how the root meaning of work-life balance has changed over time across generations.
Why the meaning of work-life balance is unique to everyone
Just as our goals vary from person to person, our perfect work-life balance will vary based on personal factors including our hobbies, schedules, relationships, and physical and mental health status.
“Work-life balance is something that’s very individualistic. We all define it differently,” says Sue DeCaro, entrepreneurial, life, and parenting coach. “For example, if you’re a runner, you might need to run five miles a day, to feel that energy within you. Finding that career balance and home life/personal balance is really important for all of us. And I think it starts with carving out time for ourselves and our self-care.”
It can be difficult for anyone to find the right work-life balance, but it’s especially tough for working mothers. Navigating motherhood, relationships, and building a career is a lot of work, and it leaves little time for full-time moms to take care of themselves and their happiness. Research even shows parents only have about 30 minutes of “me time” per day where they can unwind and recharge.
It’s also important to view work-life balance through an intersectional lens. Working longer hours is a necessity for survival to some people, and a privileged option to others.
Liu says, “[hustle culture] reinforces the notion that more work and productivity equals more success. Women and BIPOC [employees] are already prone to these unhealthy work habits due to layers of cultural conditioning, exploitation in the workplace, and histories of sacrifice within their families.”
For example, child care is often a huge barrier for mothers of color in terms of having a life outside of work while also advancing in the workplace. Black and Latina mothers are more likely to be the primary providers in their households than white mothers, with 71 percent of Black mothers and 41 percent of Latina mothers serving as the primary economic support for their families. These mothers often struggle with finding affordable child care that aligns with their work schedules, posing a challenge since they need to work more to support their families, but also can’t afford to leave their children at home since women of color earn significantly less than white women.
In other words, a balance that works for a white woman without children, might not work for a Black mother with two kids under the age of five.
How has the meaning of work-life balance changed over time?
Over the past three years, it has become evident that a shift in what work-life balance means is necessary. With blurred lines between home life and job life during the early stages of the pandemic, many employees worked long, odd hours, while simultaneously juggling kids, household responsibilities, and any fear and anxiety related to COVID-19.
Many workers already struggled with this balance, but the pandemic certainly magnified the need for more personal time. Employees no longer want to work tirelessly for years in a cubicle until their retirement, missing out on their personal lives and struggling with their mental health in the meantime.
Technological advances, coupled with the rise of remote work and flexibility, have changed what work-life balance means to different people. That’s a trend we can view generationally:
Baby Boomers were born between 1945 and 1964. Their parents, known as the Silent Generation, lived through the Great Depression, meaning they were exposed to hardships starting from a very young age. They were taught to prioritize work in order to provide for their families, and craved loyalty and stability in the workplace. As a result, work-life balance wasn’t a main concern of theirs. They usually stayed at the same company for several years—often the majority of their careers—and worked long hours to avoid the financial challenges their parents faced.
Gen Xers, born between 1965 and 1980, saw firsthand their Baby Boomer parents’ poor work-life balance. This likely is what propelled them into being the first generation to recognize the concept of a work-life balance. Unlike their parents, they were (and are) less likely to stay in one job for the entirety of their career, see nothing wrong with making a career change, and prioritize spending time with their family. They look for more flexibility in their jobs—whether that means working remotely twice a week or leaving the office early a few times a week to be able to pick up their kids from school. These employees still don’t mind working long hours, as long as their contributions are recognized.
Millennials, born between 1981 and 2000, have begun to redefine the workplace, job hopping or taking on multiple roles and side-hustles to explore different career paths and passions. A work-life balance is incredibly important to this generation, and they seek out opportunities that empower them to have a life outside of work. Flexible work hours, remote work, and paid time off are essential benefits. They’re more inclined to seek out companies that share their own personal values and morals, and accommodate their unique schedules.
Mike Russell, a millennial and CEO of PaintZen, describes what work-life balance means to him: "For me, work-life balance means being fully engaged with the world I am currently in—whether it be at work, at home with my family, at the gym, playing basketball, or just spending time with friends. I’ve found that it’s not just about the physical time spent in all the aspects of my life, but being mentally present to really get the most out of each one."
Gen Z is just now beginning to enter the workforce, but they’re swiftly following in millennials’ footsteps to ensure that flexibility and wellbeing are solid pillars of their workplace.
How the changing definition of work-life balance will evolve how we work
With millennials projected to take up 75 percent of the workforce by 2025 and Gen Z projected to become the most populous generation, many leaders agree we need to redefine what work-life balance means.
Many employers have tried to appeal to these employees by offering perks like table tennis in the office, gourmet lunches, and craft beer on tap to make their work environment seem more exciting. In fact, an entire industry has arisen in making workspaces more “millennial-friendly.”
However, many millennials report that they don’t care for these types of perks. Mindset coach and business consultant Jessie DaSilva went viral on TikTok in 2021 after she responded to a reporter who had emailed her asking for her expert opinion about what perks millennials want in the workplace.
She says, "The biggest mistake I see is companies assuming millennials want perks, nap pods, snack rooms, free avocado toast, or whatever else. Those things might seem cool on a company website, but they will never make up for a thrive-able wage, good benefits, vacation time, and the ability to learn and grow with a company."
Danielle LaGree, an assistant professor of strategic communication at Kansas State University, says these outdated, showy work perks are only effective at attracting new talent when you walk them through the office. “Over time, they see through all of that. In terms of engaging these employees and retaining them over time, they want their leaders to advocate for them. Part of doing that is showing them respect,” she says.
The future of the workforce doesn’t view overworking as an aspiration, they’re more interested in finding an employer that will support their lifestyle and life outside of work. Employees want to prioritize mental health and self-care and work at companies where they can both grow in their career and also spend enough time with their family and friends.
Opinions and trends regarding work-life balance will continue to evolve along with cultural, generational, and economic changes. Going forward, leaders will have to be open to feedback in order to ensure their employees feel respected, valued, and happy.
Read more: Are You a Workaholic? Here’s How to Know