How the latchkey generation fought for work-life balance—and lost

As Generation X came of age, they were described as many things: slackers, disaffected and apathetic. But one descriptor stands out and may well be the motivation for the societal changes that GenX has brought about as adults: the latchkey generation.

Certainly, there were unsupervised school-aged children in prior generations. What makes us so special? The answer is the sheer size and scope. Two momentous societal changes happened in the 1960s and 70s: the divorce rate skyrocketed and a record number of women entered the workforce. That left its mark on Generation X. A 2004 study conducted by Reach Advisors noted that GenX “went through its all-important formative years as one of the least parented, least nurtured generations in U.S. history.” 

GenX grew up watching their parents make choices between work and family, where the demands for time and attention for each were in direct conflict. If those parents were responsible for putting food on the table for their families, it really didn’t seem like much of a choice. As GenX-ers entered the workforce, they sought to change that dynamic. GenX was about working smarter, not harder in an effort to bring some balance to those areas of their lives.

With Generation X’s entry into the workforce, a shift began to take place. Technological advances seemed to be the key to making strides towards achieving greater autonomy over the schedule and execution of one’s own work—key drivers in employee engagement and satisfaction. People would be able to create a balance that could work for their families because technology could allow them to work anytime from anywhere.

There was just one problem. We ended up working anytime from anywhere all the time.

Our access to technology without a seismic shift in our approach to the actual work has created an “always on” mentality. A study by Gyro and Forbes Insights found that 63% of workers check their email every one to two hours when they’re not working. We’re not working harder or smarter. We’re working longer.

The entry of Millennials into the workforce reinforced the paradigm. This was a generation who had only known the blending of work (or school) and life and was the first generation to join the working world with access to technology that would allow them to work remotely with ease. Yet as the Millennial workforce ages and begins to focus on things like buying homes and starting families, work-life balance is emerging as a high priority. According to a 2016 Deloitte survey of Millennials, this generation considers work-life balance to be the number one factor when evaluating job opportunities.

The workplace is responding, but slowly. Many organizations have implemented initiatives like non-specific paid time off, flexible work schedules and family-friendly out-of-work activities in an effort to improve employees’ perceptions. In the minds of many GenX-ers and Millennials, however, these don’t go far enough. For many workers, if they are unable to get an acceptable level of work-life balance from their employers, they’ll create it for themselves. A 2016 report from the Kauffman Index of Startup Activity shows that 550,000 Americans launch new businesses each month and the average age for a successful startup-founder is about 40 years old, right on the X-er/Millennial cusp.

Technology and well-intentioned corporate initiatives aside, is work-life balance even possible and something to strive for?  Work-life integration may be a more accurate descriptor of reality. Work-life integration takes a more holistic view of how work fits with other aspects of a person’s life. It accepts the blurred lines that we know already exist. People work from home and home from work.

Acknowledgement and acceptance of this fact on the part of employers would go far in restoring a healthy work-life integration for workers. To do so requires organizations to trust its employees’ ability to manage their workload and performance levels. When employees feel trusted and supported in this way, they feel a stronger commitment to the organization—another key indicator of employee engagement.

Readers, what do you think? Does your workplace support healthy work-life integration? Leave your responses in the comments below.

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