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Balance is Bunk!

It's the central myth of the modern workplace: With a few compromises, you can have it all. But it's all wrong, and it's making us crazy. Here's how to have a life anyway.

This is page 3 of the article, "Balance is Bunk!"

Balance Is for Fat People

Pavan Vishwakarma is a 25-year-old freelance Web and e-commerce software developer. He lives and works in Bhopal, India, but he has done work for companies in Illinois, Nevada, and Canada. And he has, as he advertises, "no working hours limitation. I can work up to any stretch of time."

You want balance? Vishwakarma doesn't, particularly. He wants to work, and he'll work cheap — a lot cheaper than you will.

The global economy is antibalance. For as much as Accenture and Google say they value an environment that allows workers balance, they're increasingly competing against companies that don't. You're competing against workers with a lot more to gain than you, who will work harder for less money to get the job done. This is the dark side of the "happy workaholic." Someday, all of us will have to become workaholics, happy or not, just to get by.

Tom Patterson has spent the last year setting up a technology operations center in Hyderabad, India, for MarketTools, the Mill Valley, California, marketing-research company where he's senior vice president of technology and operations. And he has been stunned by what he sees there.

"I'm amazed at the work ethic," he says. "People are hungry, entrepreneurial, and willing to do whatever it takes at great sacrifices. These kids are working for a change in economic status. Things that we take for granted like housing, health care, vacations — this is what they're looking at. And the difference to them between $6,000 a year and $10,000 is huge."

Protest, if you like, against labor exploitation or unfair competition. The reality is, workers in India, China, Brazil, and, inevitably, everywhere else aren't stopping long to worry about it. They make our developed-world notion that workers actually are entitled to balance seem quaintly dated.

For years, work-life advocates have held up as a model the "work to live" ethic of Europeans, who historically have toiled fewer hours than Americans. But those would-be paragons are failing, too. The French government is reconsidering its decision in 2000 to reduce the national workweek to 35 hours. And two of Germany's largest companies, Siemens AG and DaimlerChrysler, have (with popular support) won union concessions that will force longer hours for employees.

If you're competing against Pavan Vishwakarma — and ultimately, we all are — you can't have both a big paycheck and reasonable hours. The laws of economics won't allow it. If we want time with our families, time to give back to our communities, time to stay slim, we're going to have to accept a pay cut — and even then, we'll have to work darned hard. Hungry beats fat, every time.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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