(opinion) Work-Life Balance

Newman Library, June 19, 2018.

Work, fulfilling the dream, the promise of a better life on liberty’s shores; everyday, millions of Americans wake up and go to work. Simultaneously, millions more college students drag themselves out of bed and go to class after spending countless hours in the library the night before. Work is lauded in America as being a bastion of manhood and the only way to seek fulfillment and happiness in everyday life. Hustle, grind and “I can sleep when I die” are some of the favorite colloquialisms of Americans everywhere. It seems we’re all on a passionate search for meaning through our work. Whether that be at a corporate office on Wall Street, or the floor of Newman Library here in Blacksburg, the culture of America points us ever toward self destruction in pursuit of a seemingly vain goal, while the answer stares us in the face. Americans need better work-life balance.  `

Scour YouTube and books and you’ll see how many gurus argue that work-life balance is rubbish, including billionaires like Jack Ma, who recently endorsed the “996” work day. That is where a person works 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. Working 12 hours a day harkens back to the draconian era of the Industrial Revolution. Sadly, Ma has not been the only person to embrace this style of over-working. For many people working today, they see the grind as an inevitable part of success. They believe that to succeed we must all sacrifice our health and mental well-being to become a part of those we see as successful.

In light of increasing suicide rates and declining mental health, many people have advocated for shorter work weeks. For example, in Germany metal workers recently won the right to a 28 hour week, 12 less hours per month than workers in the United States. Critics of these plans may detract from this, saying that productivity would decline and the economy would be harmed as a result. However, data from other countries proves that this is a farce. For example, workers in Luxembourg are the most productive in the world, despite having a 29 hour work week. The United States comes in at fifth on the list, and is beat out by Ireland, Norway and Belgium. Clearly the data shows that even though Americans work for much longer than most of the developed world, our culture of overwork does not lead to higher rates of productivity. Notably, all the countries on the list rank ahead of the United States when it comes to happiness. Although there are confounding variables, such as access to social services among other things.

Oftentimes I daydream about the future; about the ways I will conquer my own weaknesses and take the world by storm. I also often ponder the consumerism of American culture. Across social media, products such as Airpods or fancy cars have become a proxy for success. I even found myself falling into this trap: Sometimes, I daydream about status symbols of today. The want for Airpods and to eventually own a Tesla has never escaped me. However, I am often reminded of the quote by Clive Hamilton: “People buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, to impress people they don’t like.” This message rings truer it seems every day.

In the case of working, I would never understate the importance of working hard and loving your job. I would venture so far as to say that having a job you’re passionate about is a very likely indicator of how happy someone will be. From work, we can gain fulfillment and it can be an extremely enjoyable activity. However, we must not let it overtake our lives either. Making time for hobbies and family is just as important as making money and creating a comfortable life for yourself and any family you may have. I’m often reminded of the old adage that no one is satisfied solely by the time they spent at work when they reflect back at the ends of their lives. But, that everyone looks back and is happy at the memories they made through relationships with other people. Perhaps it is time that American workers drop the grind mindset and no longer sacrifice their well-being to meet others’ vain, and often unattainable, measures of success.

It’s time we rethink the idea of work. It’s time we do what seems unthinkable. Abandon the idea that all our fulfillment must come from the jobs we do to make a living. Abandon the idea that to succeed we must destroy ourselves in pursuit of a goal. Instead, we as Americans must look around and inside us. We must see what is really important, and find what will truly make us happy. 

Some may criticize my approach to life — one filled with the dichotomy of leisure and hard work. Others may call me a minimalist, which I do agree with to some extent, but not to all. In reality, it’s more that I know what is really important to me: quality time to myself, to my family and to my friends. Those are what I will remember when I come to the inevitable end of my life. Not my hours grinding through office jobs, nor the time I spent in the library preparing.

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