03/18/2014 05:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Is 'Work-Life Balance' a Dangerous Lie?

Distinctions! Categories! Don't we love them so? It's like a collective fetish, a feral addiction of the species: divisions, boxes, discrete modes of being; this belongs here and that over there, you do this and I do that, I like this and I hate that and it all make perfect sense.

Except that it's total nonsense. Devil's work. Insane.

Here's a tasty one: We have now fully embraced the heartbreaking notion that "life" and "work" are not the same thing - and what's worse, probably aren't supposed to be.

In fact, life and work are, for millions, very much at odds with each other, perhaps even enemies, each draining the other's vital energy, a perpetual tug-of-war for your attention and your soul and how much time you spend with the kids.

Just the way it is, right? Life is what happens after work. Work is what happens when you heave yourself out of bed to go make some money to pay for your life.

If you're at work, you're obviously not really living. If you're really living, it sure as hell better not feel like work.

And worst of all: You can't have both. If you want lots of business success, you sacrifice life, health, family time, soul. If you want to enjoy life in deep and meaningful ways, you'd better not spend all day at work.

Isn't this a little a little bit weird? Dangerous, even? Hacking and bifurcating, delimiting your brief time here? By this calculus, only something like 67 percent of your life is actually, you know, life. The rest is some form of waiting.

Wait, it gets weirder: Despite the bifurcation, we also accept that life and work are both sort of essential. So it's now trendy to talk about "work-life balance," as if such a thing exists, as if just the right amount of each would lead you straight to the mythical land of "happiness," as if we're not making this stuff up on the fly.

Don't just take it from me. Just ask any Millennial: work-life balance is a very big deal indeed. No one under 35 expects to work nearly as hard as their parents; most believe work is equally important as family, or love, or travel, or spending quality time with your video games or your Instagram feeds or wishing you hadn't wasted $30K on art school.

Millennials actually go so far as to demand more free time, shorter work weeks, dog therapy, multi-year sabbaticals, you name it. All the hip companies factor work-life balance into their hiring, offering everything from free yoga retreats to free-time Fridays to whatever ridiculous perk Google is offering right now to keep their drones aswim in hoodies and gummy bears for life.


Do not misunderstand: It's a fabulous intention. Not overworking at the expense of your health, your family, your love life and your creative soul is a fine trend indeed. The Puritan work ethic has poisoned America for generations, and it needs to die, along with the savage Christian dogma that birthed it. But this new perception also entirely missed the point, no?

But wait, before we delve more into that: You know who doesn't give a damn about work-life balance? Executives. Male executives, to be exact. They just don't care all that much. And they're not the slightest bit guilty about it.

Such is the observation of the Harvard Business Review, anyway, one of the coldest publications in existence. Their findings: most male execs prefer to work. In fact, they care about little else, largely because their blood has been replaced by antifreeze and their souls have been sucked away by business school, replaced by egomania, profit margins and high-functioning alcoholism.

Male executives think the whole work-life balance thing is - can you guess? That's right: a woman's problem. Something for their wives to figure out. These men just want to make lots of money. Get a sweet office. Wield lots of power. Control stuff. It's just what business guys do. And then they die. To be forgotten almost instantly.

It's the greatest irony, isn't it? With the exception of politicians, no other species of human thinks they're so powerful and important to the world, when they're actually not.

Most executives come and go like drones. Their towering self-importance - to which all of society sadly contributes - is only matched by their imminent and nearly instantaneous irrelevance.

Put another way: Steve Ballmer will be forgotten in a week. A good parent, on the other hand, contributes tremendously to the health and well- being of society, by raising decent, adjusted, well-loved kids. Which is, of course, excruciatingly hard work, far more trying than any executive. Irony!

But let's leave those poor execs out of it, and loop it back around. Because there's something more sinister afoot here....

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Mark Morford is the author of The Daring Spectacle: Adventures in Deviant Journalism, a mega-collection of his finest columns for the San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate, and the creator of the Mark Morford's Apothecary iOS app. He's also a well-known ERYT yoga instructor in San Francisco and the creator of the Yoga for Writers series of workshops and retreats. Join him on Facebook, or email him. Not to mention...