Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.

3 Reasons "Balance" Has Become A Dirty Word At Work

Recently, a skeptical senior leader asked me to explain the business case for why organizations need to take a more coordinated, strategic approach to work flexibility.

I began to list all of the business benefits, including, "Millennials value their lives outside of work and expect to be able to do their jobs flexibly." He responded, "The problem is that they don’t want to work hard. I would never have talked about work-life balance when I was their age. I just felt lucky to have a job."

He is not alone in that thinking. The meme that Gen-Y/Millennials "don’t want to work hard" exists, in part, because they talk so openly about work-life balance. But is the bias fair?

First, there will always be people in every generation who don’t want to work hard. The Gen-Y/Millennials are no exception, but is it accurate to ascribe that quality to an entire generation simply because they are open about how they want to make their lives both on and off the job a priority? It’s not, for the following reasons:

Millennials are less likely to say that work+life fit is their top priority when compared to Gen-X and Baby Boomers. This is fascinating. The American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program recently partnered with Harris Interactive to conduct its Workforce Retention Survey. They found that:

  • The top reasons working Americans stay with their current employers are work-life fit and enjoying the work that they do. This was ahead of benefits, pay, and lack of other job opportunities.
  • But, when the responses were compared by age groups, "Employees 18-34 were least likely to say enjoying the work (58 percent), work-life fit (61 percent) and benefits (54 percent) keep them on the job, but most likely to endorse co-workers (57 percent) and managers (46 percent) as reasons to stay."

In other words, even though work-life fit was a priority for 61% of respondents 18-34 (Millennials), it was a more important reason for staying on the job for those age 55 and older and 35-44. Doesn’t quite fit the prevailing bias, does it?

So what’s the difference? I think Millennials talk more openly about prioritizing their lives at work and at home than their older counterparts because…

The workplace has transformed radically over the past two decades. There are few physical and time boundaries between work and our personal lives. So we need to actively consider our personal priorities in the context of work if we want what matters to us personally and professionally to happen on a regular basis. Millennials are simply acknowledging this new reality.

Could they use some help collaborating and coordinating with others so that their desired flexibility works for everyone? Maybe. That’s a conversation we all need to have more often.

But that discussion can make people who remember (often fondly) when the boundaries between work and your personal life still existed uncomfortable. Maybe it’s easier to dismiss the Millennials' straightforward talk about work and life as, "Not wanting to work hard," rather than adapting and listening to what they are really trying to say.

When Millennials say they want "balance," they don’t mean work less. They mean work differently and more flexibly. There’s a big difference. My experience is that most Millennials are willing to work very hard when required; however, they might want to work from home or come into the office earlier or later then traditional hours. The problem is that outdated language limits their ability to describe accurately what they are trying to achieve.

For example, a PayScale survey ranked work-life balance as a top priority for the 60,000 undergraduates it interviewed. Again, "balance" is probably not what the undergrads were really saying, but that’s the language they were given, so they used it.

In comparison, another survey of Gen-Y workers by PayScale and Millennial Branding found the group wanted a workplace where the, "programs and culture are more flexible." This is probably a more accurate description of what Millennials want to experience on the job.

We need to help Millennials update their language so it describes what they want more clearly and they are less likely to be accused of "not wanting to work hard." Work-life fit, and flexibility (not balance) are two examples of more modern terminology that we all need to start using.

Let’s review: Research shows Gen-Y/Millennials are less likely than their older counterparts to say work-life fit is a priority for staying on the job. Their open prioritization of both work and life perhaps simply acknowledges a new workplace reality. And, maybe if we all updated our language beyond the limits of "balance," we can finally put to rest the unfair "they don’t want to work hard" judgment that’s been leveled against an entire generation.

What do you think?

Cali Williams Yost has been a pioneering expert on managing work and life for nearly two decades. As a consultant, speaker, and CEO and founder of the Flex+Strategy Group/Work+Life Fit, Inc., she has shown organizations like BDO USA, Pearson, Inc., EMC, the U.S. Navy, and Novo Nordisk how to partner for award-winning flexible work success. Her second book, Tweak It: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day, will be published by Center Street/Hachette in January 2013. Connect with Cali on her Work+Life Fit blog and on Twitter @caliyost.

[Image: Flickr user Orin Zebest]

Add New Comment


  • Nicole

    Cali- Loved this article!  Thanks for your continued work in this area. As you know, I'm a big fan of "fit" vs. balance and love the analogy to a balance scale to visually represent that there is rarely ever true balance. 

  • MomCorps

    Cali, I agree with you. The term “balance” when referring to the relationship between our personal and professional lives is just not descriptive of what we are trying to achieve in today’s world. It is an alignment, a cohesion, a give-and-take … the integration of one with the other so that both may be maximized. But knowing that that won’t always be the case and to give yourself a break.
    With flexibility at work, I do believe this alignment (or fit) is possible. Millennials value options, they enjoy the ability to work at home occasionally or the flexibility to “create their own hours.” Their entire lives have been about options, and nowtechnology allows Millennials to work almost anywhere. There is a stigma against Millennials that they do not want to work hard, but I think you are right, Cali, they do work hard. They just want the flexibility choose when and where that is.--Allison O'Kelly Mom Corps founder/CEO

  • Kevin W. McCarthy

    Balance is an Industrial Age mythology.  Integration is the correct approach for the coming Age of Purpose and Meaning - the age beyond the Information Age. 

    Integration, however, needs a focal point or unifying factor,  That is one's purpose in life.  Therefore, being on-purpose provides both the meaning and the method for finding authentic peace and prosperity in life and on the job.   Here's a brief video on the topic:

    Be On-Purpose!

  • Amy

    I think this is a great example of how Millennials are flooding into the workplace and stirring things up. Embracing changes like flexibility in the workplace can help retain this younger generation, which is becoming critical for today's organizations. The saying we use is, "The next generation of employees will either transform your business or watch you close it." Changes will need to be incorporated in the workplace to retain these younger workers, or it could be very costly for businesses. Great article, Cali. Thanks. 

  • Dan Black

    Cali - where have you been all my (professional) life???  I agree with all you have said above, and am grateful that you pointed out the work-life balance data - there seems to be a lot of assumptions  being made these days.  I would also say that it is incumbent upon employers to make it CLEAR to their employees just HOW they can discuss their needs and build schedules that work well for all involved: teammates, clients, supervisors, etc.  This is a two-way street, with give and take on both sides, and all too often we hear about only one side of the equation.  At Ernst & Young, we encourage that dialogue on DAY ONE - talk about what's important to everyone, work out a schedule and keep communicating.  After 18 years working here, I can tell you that it's one of the big reasons that this Gen X'er 9s still around....

  • Rcawley

    I work with lots of Millennials and I find them to be super ambitious and hard working. Also very positive thinkers. They want it all and that's not really a bad thing!

  • Dorothy Dalton

    Cali - great points. It's time we moved away from a presence culture and focused on effectiveness and productivity instead. The advanced economies also need to address long term strategies for coping with aging populations and declining birthrates rather than short term results (the next election).

     If the old model worked then it would be worth considering - but as we bump our way through recession it all points to a need for change.

  • Rednitucson

    "The problem is that outdated language limits their ability to describe accurately what they are trying to achieve"??? !!!! So that's the real problem . I say nonsense.

  • Maggie Young

    For the first time, there are four generations working side by side.  The differences between these age cohorts really brings the challenge of managing expectations.  Boomers were seeking stability more than anything, and wanted to outwork the competition.  They also wanted their children, Millenials, to have it better off than they did while growing up.  Gen-Y is more task-oriented, and time is our currency.  If we get the tasks done, that means we can leave, right?  Our generation also likes to skip steps and we love to challenge the status-quo.  The way we were raised, technology, and increasing multiculturalism has impacted us the most.

  • Terry F

    As times change so do each of the generations. I can see boomers taking advantage of items that the Gen xers want and vice versa. This isn't just about generational differences it's also about the way work has changed. For those jobs where work has not changed (car manufacturing, factory work...) you probably don't see much flexibility. I can't see someone choosing what time they start and stop on the production line.

  • Chetsi Joshipura

    Any Generation whether it is Baby boomers or millennials all needs to be prioritize their work accordingly. There are lots of difference demographically as said by Andrea in comment part and its varies in region to region.of course for management flexible timings is not acceptable always as these flexibility of millennials can affect the other baby boomers also in a negative way.

  • Kenji Sugahara

    I gotta say that's a whole crock.  Lumping Gen X in with the Baby Boomers is a huge falsity.  Gen X'ers are huge advocates of flexibility- and were some of the earliest proponents.  Think of telecommuting.  Who pushed that?  Baby boomers as a whole are command and control- where face time is more important than quality of work.  Many Gen X'ers don't care about that.  Just get it done.  Baby boomers called our generation "lazy and narcissistic".  The correct grouping is Millenials, Y's and Gen X'ers.  

  • Andrea Huggard Caine

    Being a parent of three milleniums and as somebody who has been reading about demografics and generational differences, i have found that what milleniums see as a problem is not a question of balance, rather a question of time productivity, they are not afraid of hard work,they are impatient when they do not understand why a task is being required, or doing rework because the boss did not do a good job in defining the work in the first place. Demografics is also playing a role in this issue when more and more housework and care for children is a shared task in the family.