Work/life bal­ance im­pos­si­ble dream?

Sunday Express - - LEADER - Peggy Drexler

THIS past week, Google CFO Pa­trick Pichette made head­lines when his res­ig­na­tion memo an­nounc­ing his re­tire­ment sur­faced in the me­dia. But the up­roar wasn’t that Pichette was quit­ting so much as why.

“Af­ter nearly seven years as CFO,” he be­gan, “I will be re­tir­ing from Google to spend more time with my fam­ily.” What he wanted now was to en­joy life at home and abroad with his wife, to “grab our back­packs and hit the road — cel­e­brate our last 25 years to­gether by turn­ing the page and en­joy a per­fectly fine midlife cri­sis full of bliss and beauty.”

The let­ter, which he said he wrote in part be­cause, “so many peo­ple strug­gle to strike the right bal­ance be­tween work and per­sonal life,” has been held up as a man­i­festo for the “work/life bal­ance” ideal that’s be­come some­thing of the new Amer­i­can dream.

The me­dia has de­scribed it as “pow­er­ful“and “un­usu­ally re­flec­tive.” Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page said, “Well worth read­ing, it will warm your heart.”

But if Pichette’s work/life bal­ance was achieved by quit­ting his job to go see the world, what mes­sage does it send to the rest of us seek­ing work/life bal­ance?

What mes­sage does it send to those work­ers — and in par­tic­u­lar women — who are con­stantly told they can “have it all,” or who can be at the top of their field and have a fam­ily?

What does it say to all those women to whom we say that, with a lit­tle “lean­ing in” or “play­ing big” they don’t have to choose be­tween work and life?

Suc­cess­ful women from Sh­eryl Sand­berg to Pep­siCo CEO In­dra Nooyi have spo­ken out about the pres­sure to “have it all,” and how, per­haps, there’s re­ally no such thing. Re­search backs them up.

A Novem­ber 2014 study pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Health and So­cial Be­hav­ior found that women show more signs of de­pres­sion as they move up the ca­reer lad­der.

Sim­i­larly, a sur­vey of Har­vard Busi­ness School grads found that the pres­sure women put on them­selves to bal­ance work and fam­ily is caus­ing them sig­nif­i­cant stress. The sur­vey also found that the ma­jor­ity of men ex­pected their part­ners to take pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity for child­care — and in­deed that hap­pened in more than 70 per­cent of cases.

And yet in re­cent years, “work/life bal­ance” has been held up as a le­git­i­mately at­tain­able ideal, one that you can achieve if only you give your per­sonal life as much at­ten­tion as your pro­fes­sional one.

But if you look at those we tend to hold up as mod­els of that ideal — those who leave work ear­lier, si­lence their cell­phones more, re­tire, as in the case of Pichette, at 52 — are they re­ally strik­ing a bal­ance?

Which is why talk­ing about work/life bal­ance at all is a per­ilous busi­ness, an in­vi­ta­tion to fail. Hav­ing it all is very diffi- cult, if not down­right im­pos­si­ble. Pichette, af­ter all, did not prac­tice work/life bal­ance. He wrote, “I was al­ways on — even when I was not sup­posed to be.”

Like many suc­cess­ful men (and women), he was likely able to work as hard as he did while still hav­ing a fam­ily be­cause he had the sup­port of some­one at home.

“When our kids are asked by their friends about the suc­cess of the longevity of our mar­riage, they sim­ply joke that Ta­mar and I have spent so lit­tle time to­gether that ‘it’s re­ally too early to tell’ if our mar­riage will in fact suc­ceed.”

It’s in jest, of course, and yet likely rooted in some se­ri­ous re­al­ity. This is a man who didn’t achieve work/life bal­ance as an ex­ec­u­tive. Of course, one could ar­gue that the idea of bal­anc­ing work with life may be harder for men than for women, who are the tra­di­tional bread­win­ners and the ones more likely to find self-worth through their work.

This is one rea­son we see many wealthy, pow­er­ful men work­ing well into their 80s. At the same time, it’s un­de­ni­ably eas­ier for th­ese men to make a de­ci­sion to leave the whole thing early.

Pichette re­tires as Google’s high­est paid ex­ec­u­tive, with mil­lions in stock in­cen­tives. He can af­ford to re­tire and not even have to work for the re­main­der of his life. The rest of us are nowhere close to hav­ing that luxury of choice.

Cor­po­rate Amer­ica, it should be noted, shoul­ders much of the blame for keep­ing bal­ance at arm’s length, with in­creas­ingly long days and ever-tight­en­ing lim­its on va­ca­tions, paid leave and other “benefits.” We shouldn’t have to leave our jobs to achieve bal­ance, and the fact that some do, means that com­pa­nies need to make real changes.

That in­cludes staffing work­places rea­son­ably, putting work­ers’ well-be­ing on par with prof­its, show­ing work­ers you don’t ex­pect them to be “on” all the time. Only then will real work/ life bal­ance start to take shape.

Un­til then: “Google CFO Pa­trick Pichette’s Good­bye Note Will Make You Dream of Quit­ting Your Job,” so reads a head­line at ABC News. In­deed, that’s the kicker. Pichette can “carpe diem” and “find bal­ance,” if that’s what he’s do­ing, at 52, be­cause he truly does have choices. But for most of the work­ers in Amer­ica, find­ing that sort of bal­ance — or choos­ing life over work — will re­main an im­pos­si­ble dream.

SUN­DAY TALK

Drexler is the au­thor of “Our fa­thers, Our­selves: Daugh­ters, fa­thers, and the Chang­ing Amer­i­can fam­ily” and “Rais­ing Boys With­out Men.” She is an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at Weill Med­i­cal Col­lege of Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity and a for­mer gen­der scholar at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity. The opin­ions ex­pressed in this com­men­tary are solely those of the writer.

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