Tuesday 20 May 2014

Work-life balance: Young workers want it all

We all need harmony in our lives, but being hung up about it smacks of a sense of entitlement
By Zuraidah Ibrahim, The Sunday Times, 18 May 2014

When interviewing fresh graduates, one thing that always stumps me is their desire to achieve work-life balance from Day One while pursuing what they describe to be their passion. A surprising number also say they wish they did not have to work on weekends.

I'm evidently not alone in noticing something novel here. A chief executive of a government-linked company told some of us recently that when he asked his children what he should talk about in a commencement speech at a tertiary institution, his son answered without hesitation: work-life balance.

Last December, in his regular "Sunday e-mail" dispatches to his staff, corporate chief Liew Mun Leong wrote about a student who had asked him how he'd managed his work-life balance all these years. This was a National University of Singapore engineering undergraduate in the "high potential" group.

Mr Liew wrote: "Wow, I thought, this young man hasn't even graduated or worked a single day and he is asking about work-life balance! I jokingly replied that such controversial questions are often asked by people who don't wish to exert themselves in work or by those who seek only pleasure in life and not work."

Before you think these are the archaic views of a generation two or three times the age of fresh graduates, I should add that even an ex-colleague in her mid-30s was struck by this trend. She lamented to me about her charges in their 20s: "They want to go home on the dot at 6 and get very stressed when they get just a bit more work."

I know her to be a caring manager. If even she is facing such issues, what more the slave-drivers among us, I wonder.

A 2014 Randstad World of Work Report found that Singaporean workers place increasing importance on achieving work-life balance. The proportion of those who ranked it as one of the main reasons to stay with their organisation jumped from 15 per cent in 2012 to 50 per cent last year.

For some, the goal may be simply to work less because the job is sheer drudgery. For them, the solution might be to change the nature of the work, or quit. Experts such as Nigel Marsh note that some jobs by nature truly require you to put in a huge number of hours, such that the work rules your life.

In many cases, though, workplace experts are increasingly calling on employers and employees not to look at work and life as being in a binary, zero-sum relationship. Some have called for a better work-life blend as the more relevant approach. But that makes it sound horribly unclear where work ends and life begins.

Whichever way you cut it, one thing is clear: There is a need for harmony in our lives. And employers should support that because finding such harmony probably makes us more productive workers over the long term.

Typically, the issue of work-life balance is especially salient to those raising young children or taking care of elderly parents. As Singapore's families shrink in size, there are fewer members of the extended family available to help. Employers cannot ignore this fact if they want workers to stay on the job. Arrangements such as flexi-work hours or job-sharing are gaining popularity and they should be welcomed by those who need them most.

Work-life balance is also acknowledged to be a key requirement for leaders of organisations. Countless business gurus dispense advice on cultivating happy, holistic lives that can actually make you a more rounded, smarter leader.

However, young graduates do not fall into either of these categories. Well before they are in leadership or parenthood, many want a balanced life that an older generation found too impertinent to ask for.

Those who grew up relishing their first pay cheques must be baffled at how young people can go on extended graduation trips or take time out before securing their first job. The older cohort assumed that the first few years of working life would be like bootcamp, an apprenticeship where one picked up experience and proved one's reliability and diligence. It is difficult to identify with millennials who talk about the need for job satisfaction and the time to meet their friends regularly on weekday nights, let alone their sacrosanct weekends.

All of this determination to lead a full life even before finding one's feet as a self-reliant adult is enviable, I suppose. Sometimes I wish I had had the gumption in my 20s to say no when my boss waylaid me with yet another assignment as I was about to leave for the day. I might have been marked down a notch or two in my appraisal, but what the heck, maybe I might have had more fun. I will never know.

In a way, the priority that the younger set places on work-life balance is a mark of our success as a society. After all, we should be worried if we became a First World society where the young only saw themselves as mere cogs for the economic machine. Young people's definition of the good life has evolved just as our society has evolved.

Many of them are more likely to have post-materialist values compared to the older generation, emphasising autonomy and self-expression on top of economic security. "In Asia, the Western countries and Africa there is a tendency that younger cohorts swear on post-materialist happiness, compared to older ones," according to the World Values survey group, which captures Singapore.

Hence, one would hope that as young people have a fuller, more rounded sense of what life is about, they would become good parents and would not pressure their children the way an earlier generation did. Similarly, one would hope too that as they develop these other aspirations, they become more tolerant of diversity and other people's life choices, be it in career, race, religion or relationships.

Unfortunately, though, these shifts in values are coinciding with another global trend, which may not give the young the luxury of a post-materialist lifestyle. In an earlier era in many developed countries, and in Singapore, being a university graduate was the ticket to a secure, well-paying job. Many Singaporeans in their 40s to 60s had this relatively smooth move from school to workplace.

But it should be painfully clear that those days are over. In an open economy, with or without immigration, young Singaporeans must compete with their peers from Asia who still have their parents' and grandparents' attitude towards work: Long hours and deferred gratification are prized over instant rewards and a fuller life in the short term. The competition will be especially difficult for Singaporeans for whom post-materialism has not meant the end of consumerism - when young graduates leave the office for their real lives, most still want to be seen in designer accoutrements and with the latest gadgets.

To their seniors, this desire to deprioritise work without downgrading their First World standard of living smacks of a sense of entitlement.

Just how a new generation reconciles the kind of life they want with the exertions they are prepared to make will be one of the major questions facing Singapore in the coming years. If they succeed, they could teach the older generation a few life lessons. If they fail, their parents or their inherited wealth might provide them a soft landing. But for how long, is the question they may want to mull over, as they bask in the pleasure of their fifth straight early weekday evening off.


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