Oliver Gilan

Is Work-Life Balance Worth It?

I recently read a tweet expressing exasperation with the standard 8-9 hour workday and how little time it leaves for life outside of work. Coincidentally the same day I came across this beautiful essay by Brie Wolfson about her nostalgia for her time working at Stripe. What Brie misses most was the long workdays, the stress, the cameraderie, and being part of a group of people giving their all towards achieving a shared mission. These two distinct viewpoints reflect a difference in attitude toward work-life balance that I’ve seen take shape in “the discourse” online and even among friends & family. The former viewpoint believes that work is simply a means to an end for money, purely transactional, and that “life” is supposed to be lived outside of work. The latter viewpoint views work as an integral part of one’s life and that attemping to bisect the two is not a recipe for a happy life.

It often feels as though my generation predominantly agrees with the former view of work-life balance while I personally believe that to live a fulfilled life one must seek work-life integration. When I see tweets like the one above it makes me wonder if my belief is correct and if it is then why do so many people feel the opposite? Why do so many view work as some punishment or inconvenience that must be endured so that they can live their “real” lives after? The mindest of work-life integration can be an ideal that’s not available to everyone but most of the individuals in my social circle that try to separate work and life are in white collar jobs with more leverage as employees than most people. It’s easy to say people are just more lazy in this day and age but that seems like a cop-out to me and the more I think about this issue the more I feel that the work-life balance attitude is the natural result of various environmental incentives.

Caring Doesn’t Pay #

My first instinct regarding this issue is too many people in my generation have seen others get burned (or they themselves got burned) by caring about work too much. Brie talks about late nights full of tears, stress, and joy. She mentions cancelling a vacation after her manager asked because her colleagues were working 15 hour days and she didn’t want to abandon them. The opportunity to work with a team of people you highly respect and throwing your all into a shared mission with them as Brie describes is a prospect I’m very drawn to and I firmly believe everyone should experience that at some point in their life. And yet it’s probably more common than not that after dedicating your blood, sweat, and tears to a company you still get fucked over. Maybe there’s a market downturn and you get laid off because of poor decisions by leadership; maybe the startup simply fails; or maybe it succeeds/ gets acquired and liquidation preferences leave you with little to no reward for your equity. The vast majority of statups are not financially rewarding for anyone other than the founding team so purely from a financial standpoint it can be irrational to dedicate your life to one.

But startups are unusual in their own right! Even if they aren’t completely financially rational there’s a ton to be gained through connections, reputation, and skills that you can pick up by dedicating yourself at the right startup. Most people that emphasize work-life balance aren’t in that situation and probably work at an enterprise where many of those upsides are less prevalent and there is even less incentive to care about the work. During my time at Microsoft I could have been the most productive engineer in the world and the bottom line for Microsoft wouldn’t have changed. Or I could have died and the bottom line for Microsoft wouldn’t have changed. When you are so far removed from the result of your labor and the outcomes are so detached from the personal inputs there’s very little incentive to find meaning in the work. Marx called this phenomenon alienation, and while a revolution by the working class is probably not an appropriate nor effective solution, it’s still a very real result of working for many of these massive corporations. Enterprises also fail to create environments of agency in most cases. Orders come down from “the top” with little input from ICs and more often than not opportunities to take “ownership” are really just an excuse by a manager to shift more responsibilities downwards without doing the same for the associated upside and rewards.

The result is that a vast swath of workers view passion for their job as irrational and even dowrnright risky. As it is now even if you work yourself to the bone and deliver real value to a business there’s a good chance you’ll be passed over for a promotion due to political reasons or the company will prioritize bringing someone external to fill a role above you instead of hiring internally. It’s hard to speak on behalf of other industries on this specific topic but at least in tech it can be far more rational to jump jobs every 2-3 years than it is to stay at one company for an extended period of time. How is someone supposed to foster a deep understanding and affinity for their work if they are incentivized to leave every couple years? How are they supposed to be passionate about a mission if they’re treated as expendable?

Work Has Changed, Work Hasn’t Changed #

Beyond poor work environments and bad leadership there’s also the fundamental problem that most work is just bullshit. The world is full of interesting problems and disciplines to master and I’m lucky that I get to work on my craft of software engineering every day. Meanwhile when talking to friends the majority of their day-to-day responsibilities include things like copying rows from an email to an Excel document, shifting images on a PowerPoint slide to be just right, or compiling reports with little creative contribution. There’s two things that strike me about their descriptions of work:

  1. Most of this work could be automated or at least dramatically minimized
  2. It accomplishes very little of value

Work will feel dull when the nature of the work is dull. This is obvious and yet I’m constantly shocked by how many companies will go through great pain to hire the “best and brightest” from the most prestigious universities only to then have them spend their days copying rows from emails into Excel documents. There is an abundance of low hanging fruit for many businesses to reduce toil and unlock the creative productivity of their employees which would make many of these jobs more fulfilling and exciting, not to mention more valuable. If you work as an “analyst” in investment banking and your 15 hour days consist of putting meetings on the calendar for your boss you’re a lot more likely to feel disdain for your job than if you’re given tasks that involve actual analysis, creativity, and even risk-taking. In many ways this is a direct result of poor leadership that doesn’t understand how to value the skills of their employees nor how to build systems at scale for reducing toil.
Secondly, many of these bullshit jobs do not accomplish much of value which is often the real killer of morale. Many barista jobs can be automated too but they often get to see the direct result of their work by making drinks, becoming familiar with regulars, and directly providing a service many people find valuable. It doesn’t surprise me that I more often meet a barista who enjoys their work than I do a junior investment banker. Most white collar jobs have not adapted to the age of information and unlocked the creative productivity most of their employees have ot offer.

There’s also the issue of the workday itself. When productivity was a direct result of time spent on the assembly line a 9-5 workday made sense but when work requires creative or analytical time spent at a desk only marginally results in higher output. There’s simply no reason for many white collar information jobs to require employees to sit at a desk for 8 hours a day and yet a shockingly small amount of companies even try to experiment with different working schedules that may better fit their employees' lives. I do think this argument is sometimes taken too far with people claiming that any more than 3 hours a day of creative work is a waste which misses the point that most people– especially those early in their career– cannot do 3 hours of productive work without a lot of “wasted” time inbetween. There’s also the fact that not all work work done in a creative job is creative. As a programmer no matter how productive I can be writing code or debugging a problem there’s still a lot of work to be done around planning, coordination, and team building. Brie talks about working 15 hour days which is fine and well when you are at an early stage startup trying to solve an ambitious problem and the mountains to climb seem never-ending. But most companies are not in that situation and making employees commute an hour each way in traffic to sit at a desk for 8 hours to only do 2 hours of productive creative work is not a good strategy to make people passionate about their jobs.

The Burdens of Adulthood #

Bad work environments and boring jobs aren’t where the problems end either. It also feels as though we have less time today than we had in the past. I am extremely fortunate to work as a software engineer in tech where employees have more leverage than normal. I can work from home and set my hours in a way most people can’t and yet even I often feel overwhelmed keeping up with the responsibilities outside of work e.g. cleaning my apartment regularly, doing my laundry, excercising, buying groceries and cooking for myself, cleaning dishes, etc. Just taking care of the bare necessities often takes up most of my time outside of work and that’s not even taking into account time spent with friends, leisure, hobbies, etc. Modern life is so full of time taxes just for daily survival that sometimes it feels like too much for one person to handle… and it might be.

In 1960 women were predominantly getting married around the age of 20 and men around 22. Today those averages are at 28 and 29 years old respectively. It’s not an exaggeration to say that people today shoulder the burden of adulthood alone for far longer than they have in the past. Similarly in 1960 about half of mothers were stay-at-home mom’s whereas today that number has dropped below 30%. The cumulative effect is that historically an individual could work 8-9 hours a day but many of the responsibilities of adulthood outside of work were lessened by the contribution of a spouse while today even with a spouse there’s a good chance no one is staying home with the time to handle non-work responsibilities.

What becomes evidently clear is that when women won their battles for equality and entered the workforce en masse they weren’t getting jobs they were switching jobs. Even just in 2019 if American women were paid minimum wage for the time they put into housework they would have earned $1.5 trilltion, a staggering amount. This is in modern times when the housework performed by women is a fraction of what it used to be. It’s not unreasonable to posit that because we did not value the labor of women monetarily and did not count it towards any of the metrics we use to judge the health of the economy we completely missed the fact that there was this massive amount of necessary labor being performed to support fulfilling lives. Of course the answer is not to make women return to these jobs– the gender of the person performing the housework is irrelevant– but this work still needs to be done and now more people are shouldering that burden alone for longer.

What Can Be Done #

So what can be done? I still believe the opportunity to enjoy one’s work and to find meaning in it is critical for a fulfilling life and we should do everything we can to change the incentives. Whether it’s on an individual level, company level, industry level, or even government level there’s plenty of things we can do to shift the cost-benefit of most of these jobs in a way that makes them more fulfilling and motivating. Not only would that make our society happier on average (which we desperately need) I suspect it would lead to greater productivity gains for the economy as a whole.

Change the costs of showing up

  • 4 day work weeks, 10-3, variable work hours, etc. There’s plenty of room to experiment with different work schedules that better fit people’s lives and do not sacrifice on creative/analytical output
  • Build better public transportation and denser cities to make it faster and easier to work in person. Pretty much every city in America besides New York requires a car to live and work but sitting in traffic and commuting for hours automatically makes the cost of showing up for work higher. Remote work has helped in this regard but ultimately young people who are passionate about their jobs will want to work in person even for a couple days a week and to be frank the logistics around working in person are terrible for most of America.

Create a culture of loyalty and respect

  • Prefer internal promotions over external hires
  • Invest in employee development. If an employee leaves your company at the same level they joined that should be viewed as a failure in most instances. This means real investment in training and education beyond just online seminars or a Pluralsight subscription.
  • Pay more, give better benefits. Pay is a sign of respect and should accurately reflect how valuable an employee is to an organization without that employee needing to employ Machiavellan negotiation tactics

Improve the quality of work itself

  • Reduce toil with tech automation and give the existing workforce more creative/analytical responsibilities
  • Promote agency with flatter org structures and more ownership. Create opportunities for employees to take risks and benefit more from the wins

Reduce people’s overall economic risk

  • Start offering internships for high school students and invest in on-the-job education. Instead of people entering the workforce at 22 years old with thousands of dollars of debt we should consider the benefits of them joining the workforce out of high school, debt free, especially when most of the skills will be learned on the job regardless of whether they have a degree or not. This needs to be driven by the businesses and there’s a whole bunch of caveats to making a dynamic like this work but it’s possible. This is a whole other post I will write about in the future but there’s a lot of room to change peoples economic outlook by changing the structure of the education-to-work pipeline.
  • Make healthcare cheaper and separate from employment. Healthcare is one of the biggest spending categories for people in America. By making it cheaper you automatically make most people richer by some degree and by detaching from employment status you empower employees to more readily bad jobs and either take risks making their own companies or joining companies that they are passionate about.
  • Make housing cheaper. By making housing cheaper across the board you enable people to more readily move and organize themselves physically in localities where they can meet people with interests such as theirs. If we want people to dedicate themselves to shared missions it’s important that they can work and live near others with a similar mindset. Just between cheaper housing and healthcare you will give employees a ton of leverage to leave bad jobs and find other people working on missions they find meaningful.
  • Provide better paid parental leave and childcare. Right now the cost of raising a family and doing much of the important housework is simply too high. We need find a way to reward the massive amount of unpaid labor being performed at home.

For each of these changes there will be caveats and unintended consequences but what we do know is that whatever we’re doing right now isn’t working. People find meaning in life when they can dedicate themselves to a mission whether that’s raising children, becoming a champion of a sport, writing a novel, mastering a craft, etc. While not necessary, most missions people dedicate themselves to are directly economically productive and thus become jobs and that’s a good thing because when groups of people work together they can often accomplish far more than what an individual ever could. I view the trend to try and separate work from life as a failure on the part of our society and we should work on all levels to fix the incentives. Empowering people to live a life of meaning means more than just making them happy in a corporate job but there’s also little reason why more corporate jobs can’t be more compelling.