It’s Easy to Find Work-Life Balance. Just Find the Meaning of Life.
In the past two years, Americans have become disenchanted with work, leading to major strikes and what is being called the Great Resignation. But what if there was a better way? This writer went looking for that ever elusive work-life balance, learning how to get outside more and stress less.
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Before I became a journalist, one of the best jobs I had was waiting tables at a barbecue restaurant atop a little bump on Snowmass Mountain called Sam’s Knob. My daily commute involved riding a high-speed chairlift, and I was guaranteed an hour and 15 minutes of snowboarding every morning before my shift. Tips were good, so I could afford to work four days a week, thus netting myself another three days to snowboard. Sam’s was where I learned that fresh snow made a sound when you were surfing through it: shhhh, softer than a whisper.
The way I felt about that job was the polar opposite of how I’d felt about the job I left not long before it, the one I worked right out of college, as a financial analyst for corporate clients in San Francisco. Particularly during the first couple of years, I worked late nights and often weekends. The office was on the 20th floor of a skyscraper on California Street, and I can still remember how the city glittered at night through the glass walls, rows and rows of glowing windows framing offices like mine, many of which were still occupied by young professionals like me, all of us eating takeout at our desks.
These two jobs may not appear to have much in common, but they were fundamentally similar in that they were, to me, J-O-B jobs. I mean that I did not find either of them inherently fulfilling; neither dishing brisket nor building Excel models made my soul sing. But in both instances I was compensated adequately, worked in a safe and comfortable environment, and had coworkers and supervisors that I enjoyed. The difference, then, was not the job itself but the life I was able to have outside it—that is to say, in the case of my finance job, no life at all, and in the case of the serving gig, one in which I spent most of my time doing something I loved.
The latter scenario is the holy grail of work-life balance. But many of us don’t have lives like that. According to a 2021 Gallup survey, more than 40 percent of Americans work over 45 hours a week. Yet, despite those long hours, roughly a third agree or strongly agree that in their current job, there’s “too much work to do it well.” All this got worse during the pandemic, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, which found that the average worker saw their calendar stack up with more meetings, their inbox swell with more email, and their workday lengthen by 48.5 minutes. No wonder nearly 60 percent of Americans feel “some level of burnout,” according to a May 2021 survey by Business Insider.
But burnout isn’t just a result of being overworked. It’s also rooted in our cultural belief that work isn’t just a means to a paycheck but a path to purpose, meaning, and character, says Jonathan Malesic, author of The End of Burnout: Why Work Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives. Malesic, a former theology professor who grew disillusioned with what was once a dream career in academia, says that the underlying cause of burnout is a mismatch between this lofty view of work and the more mundane reality that it’s sometimes unpleasant, meaningless, and even character destroying. This gap, Malesic writes, “leads us to exhaustion, cynicism, and despair.”
The solution, he says, is to reprioritize life above work. For many this will mean working less, “because drowning in email” is “not the purpose of a human life.” Instead, we should build a meaningful existence—one worth walking away from our desk for—and decide how work fits into that.
There’s just one obvious catch: historically, work-life balance has largely been out of our hands. “Most people don’t have much of a choice about whether, or how much, to work, given the state of wage and benefit levels in the nation and the lack of government-provided social safety nets,” notes Benjamin Sachs, a Harvard law professor and a faculty codirector of Harvard’s Labor and Worklife Program. “The power generally resides with the employer.”
But Sachs also says that we’re now witnessing important developments in the labor market. Starting last spring, in what’s being called the Great Resignation, millions of workers quit their jobs. Corporations from John Deere to Kellogg’s have recently seen major worker strikes over wages and other issues. And over the past two years, employees at Facebook, Google, and Netflix staged walkouts and demanded an emphasis on social responsibility from executives. These displays of collective power, Sachs says, can have “real effects.”
In other words, we may be having a moment—one in which, for the first time in decades, we have some ability to redefine what work-life balance means. So let’s start by asking the right questions: What is a meaningful life? And how does work fit into that?