"Work-Life Balance"; is there even such a thing?

I recently hired a few temporary employees from an agency to help me clean out the warehouse. One of them (let’s call him Mike) works a night shift at a grocery store. “I never rest” he said. “I work two jobs and contracting work on weekends. I have a mortgage on my 4-bedroom house and a girlfriend that just gave birth, I'm tired got but I gotta hustle”. It isn’t the first such story I’ve come across, and speaking with Mike reminded me that.

  • At the company I presently work for, there was a customer service rep (let’s call him Diego) who worked 2 jobs that both paid the same amount. Together, he was bringing in a near six-figure salary.
  • My wife’s former colleague (Jessie) is a physical therapist and choses to work 3 different part-time side jobs in various clinics, bringing her very good take home pay.
  • When I drove for Uber, I met many people who work long hours for 2-3 different companies to make a living, and succeeded at it. One of them actually told me he worked 80 hrs a week for a month, every other month. 

I’m sure most of you know someone just like this (maybe not the Uber guy working every other month), or are yourselves working long hours to meet your financial goals. Over the years, meeting such people across different economic situations has reinforced for me the fact that it's possible to find work and make money when you want it, regardless of skill set. It eventually occurred to me that there’s a similarity between all of us, even though our backgrounds and circumstances may be different. We are similar in that we work extra-long hours to make a living that otherwise wouldn’t be available to us; we're all trying to "move forward, onward and upward”. The challenge, however, isn’t so much finding the opportunity, it’s finding the time without encroaching on the “life” part of “work-life balance”. This brings me back to the point I’d like to discuss – is there even such a thing as “work-life balance”?

The answer to this question is a bit of a can of worms, and really depends on who you ask. To me, it depends on what your goals are. If your goal is to provide the most comfortable life possible (whether it be for yourself, your family or your cats) then there isn’t much of a balance to be had, no matter where you are on the economic ladder. If this is your case, then you will work to find every opportunity available to use your skills (whether labor, office administration or something else) to make money, no matter how much it encroaches on your free time. The line between work and home becomes blurred as you come home and continue writing/checking emails or don’t come home at all because you go to a second and/or third job and/or school. Some of you may find this approach respectable, while others may find it appalling.

I’ve had conversations on the matter with many different people. I’ve heard varying opinion. They usually range from:

“People shouldn’t have to work that hard to make ends meet”

to

“People must work this hard in order to live comfortably”.

The truth is that both statements can be valid. They’re two extremes of a spectrum. Which applies depends on the situation. For instance, if you’re referring to a person who is stuck in the debilitating cycle of poverty, then the former is irrevocably true. The same goes for people in situations they can’t get out of; living in an area with few other opportunities while working long hours in a job that doesn’t pay much relative to the cost of living. Such people need  assistance to have a chance at leaving such a situation, whether government or otherwise. If neither are true, however, then the latter applies – you have to work longer and harder by any means available at your disposal. I’ve been through both.

My parents, my brother and I experienced life in poverty; we received welfare and unemployment while my parents struggled working long hours in shit jobs. In doing so, my parents sacrificed almost all their free time, their personal dreams and in many cases their dignity. They worked and worked until they dug us out of living beneath dignity; in a small, roach infested apartment building across the street from a fire station that woke us up every night. Then they worked some more. In contrast, I’m experiencing the latter; working long hours to provide a myself and my family a better standard of living than my parents ever had. However, in terms of a balance, I’m not sure if I’ve made much progress from my forebears.

This is not a complaint. I have very few regrets about my life and am quite content with my situation. I am and will forever be eternally grateful for the sacrifices my parents made to give me the opportunity to live the life I do. But I still find myself reflecting on just how difficult it can be to find time for myself and even for my family in the middle of it all. I can’t help compare the difficulties I have in this regard to the hardships they faced, and overlay that with the experiences of people I meet. When I do, I realize we’re all facing the same struggle that always seems to plague those of us without trust funds - to actually live our life, while working to improve our circumstance.

One answer, I suppose, is to be content with what you have. Money, after all, isn’t everything. It’s possible to live a comfortable life virtually on any salary that doesn’t put you below the poverty line; “comfort”, after all, is a relative term. In fact, this article in Forbes magazine talks about a study that indicates salaries beyond $75k have diminishing returns in terms of happiness (that figure is likely hire in areas where the cost of living is higher than the national average). So the answer seems to be “just stay in the middle, and you can have balance”. But that’s easier said than done.

For one, you’re constantly bombarded by temptation; things you should be buying, things the person next to you has, things you just want. – the new cell phone, the new car, the new <fill in the blank>. especially in our consumer culture. This drives you further and further into the rat race and, well, not all of us are devout Buddhists. 

Another challenge is our “sink or swim” culture. You have to keep moving, sometimes fighting the current. Once you stop swimming you’re completely beholden to both the strength and direction of the tide. Your company can go out of business, you can lose your job due to budget cuts, or your manager can simply decide they can hire someone younger for cheaper (not saying it’s right, but it happens) and all of a sudden you don't know where to turn because you were comfortable for too long. I see it all the time when interviewing people. It's even harder when you have a family to support.

It’s one thing to be content with what you have, it’s another experience entirely to realize that someone else depends on you; especially when that person is helpless, like a child or an older relative that needs care. Both can be costly and strain a budget to it’s limits. So there you are, back in the rat race. Struggling to find time to spend simply enjoying what you have.

The list of such examples and circumstances can go on and on. I’m certain I haven’t covered them all. I still don’t have the answer on how to find balance in the middle of it all. It's easy to lecture you on how, but it's much harder in practice. I think I’m making progress, but who knows.

I now purposely leave work undone until the next day so I can leave at a descent time, I try to come in earlier so I can leave earlier and see my son in the evenings (although even that sometimes fails and I wind up with 15 hr days) and I try to make the most of weekends; sometimes leaving my phone in my car. Still, it’s hard to strike "that balance". It often seems like the more I try to prioritize one in favor of the other, I risk losing the one I ignore.