The Illusion of Work-Life Balance

03/23/2015 12:59 pm ET | Updated May 23, 2015

Photo: I. Rimanoczy

A couple of decades ago, a flurry of articles and workshops emerged about what seemed a new concern: how to achieve work-life balance. I recall how puzzled I was, since seeking to find balance between work and life implies that work is outside of life, that it is separate from it. The issue is still being discussed these days - but it definitely is shifting in its meaning - due to the pervasive technology that has entered our homes (formerly a reserved space for 'life'), our commutes, our dinners, lunch breaks, yoga classes, and even bedrooms. How many of us do occasionally (or regularly) check emails and reply at the kitchen counter or even from under the covers?

"Work-life balance is dead", and it may be a good thing, reflects journalist and author Laura Vanderkam, who conducted a time diary study over 1001 days of high-earning women and their families. In her study she found that many 'personal activities' were happening during work time, and that work was happening in the so-called private time. Lines are blurring, and there is a whole generation asking for this flexibility when applying for a job. You can guess who they are.

In his 2014 book Healing Capitalism British Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria, Jem Bendell, reflects on this topic from a different angle. He recalls that, until recently, to be 'professional' meant that we were able to leave our interests and 'life' issues at home, and if needed, our personal values or ethical standards as well. Without discussing if this has ever been possible, since the 'personal stuff' is not an umbrella we can easily check at the door, Bendell observes that "younger business leaders and entrepreneurs are not only wanting more work-life balance, but also 'work-life blending', i.e. bringing their whole personality to work."

This doesn't seem to be about the convenience to take a call from home, or to have quieter time to prepare reports after the kids are put to bed. This touches a different and more significant topic: how fully do we show up at work, how are our deepest values reflected in what we do and the decisions we make from our desk, how does our heart connect with our task, how do purpose and meaning come to play a role in what we devote so many hours to?

There is a yearning for more integral work experiences, a business leader confided to me as he reflected on how his employees were thoroughly enthusiastic about exploring how their work could make a better impact on the environment or the community.

In a recent conversation a friend was asking me what was new, and as I talked about work - she stopped me: "Oh, I don't mean work, I mean - life". When was it that we began to take work out of the sphere of life? For over 3.5 billion people, half the world's population that lives outside urban areas, work and life are the same thing. Work may mean tending the land, the cattle, the home or the family- and that is life. Was it when we made our time a commodity to be sold on the marketplace? When we lost sight of what our contribution is to the final product? Perhaps when we lost the connection to the (real) need we were addressing?

Fortunately, the younger urbanites are less ready to resign meaningfulness, passion or personal fulfillment in exchange for money. Work has to be challenging, cool and fun too, and making a contribution to a larger purpose is a powerful motivation. Think Chris Stampar, the International Director at IDEAS For Us, a student-founded non-profit organization accredited by the United Nations that advances sustainability and environmental awareness through campus and community action. After an amazing presentation of the organization's initiatives, he was asked how the organization was funded. He looked into the audience and said: We have no funding. For seven years all our work has been done by passionate volunteers. Now we are looking for funding to do more.

We may be getting closer to re-blending work and life, to understanding that work is not 'separate from' but 'part of'' life. Thinking of the expectations of the younger generation to bring their creativity into the workplace, I wonder if the next hot topic will be: How to maintain your work-play balance. Stay tuned.