Work, Work, Work, Work, Work: For this new generation, that’s a ‘no’

OPINION: This generation of workers has already seen widespread quitting—the Great Resignation—not because they’re lazy but because they will not suffer through working conditions that they feel are beneath them.

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Until recently, there was no such thing as a work/life balance. What did that look like? What did that even mean? I was never sure. 

Generation X grew up and went to work and was taught that work meant working all the time, making work the center of your life, being willing to work late and on weekends and maybe even on your off day. We watched movies and TV shows that talked about the struggle to have a work/life balance, which really boiled down to, “How can I possibly have a social life when I have a job”

In the amazing recent Apple TV+ show Severance, people work at a secretive company that forces them to sever the connection in their minds linking their work memories and their life memories. At work, they cannot recall the outside, and at home, they can not recall work. They are left feeling like they are at work all the time, and they wonder what they are like outside of it. That’s a feeling most in Gen X could relate to. 

Apple’s original movie WeCrashed is about the rise and fall of WeWork, a company that tried to solve the problem of us lacking a work/life balance by making the workplace more fun and communal. We in Gen X understood that idea. That made sense to people who took pride in working long hours. We all but bragged about how little we slept because of work. Being so important at work that they needed you all the time meant feeling valued, but at the same time, many of us were miserable and exhausted. But we knew no other way. 

I remember my father going to work every single day. I do not recall him ever having a sick day. Not once in the entire 18 years I lived under his roof. That’s what you do—you show up every day and work as much as you can. Right? It came as a shock to me to discover that, nowadays, many people actually have a work/life balance. They have it because they demand it. 

Nowadays, there are people who refuse to work on weekends or to stay after hours, and they may be insulted that you asked. So if the company wants them to stay late. The company’s staffing problem is not their problem.

These groups have so many people in the workforce now that I think there are two separate work cultures. 1) People who seem to have no boundaries and let work take over their lives and 2) people who have strong boundaries so they make certain they have a life. The first group, when pushed to the limit, will suffer through it, while the second group, when pushed to the limit, will quit rather than concede to demands they consider unfair. This generation has already seen widespread quitting—the Great Resignation—not because they’re lazy but because they will not suffer through working conditions that they feel are beneath them.

I’m not saying one group is better than the other. Those of us with no boundaries have much to learn from those who have strong boundaries. If your company is not as loyal to you as you are to it, then what are you doing? If your paycheck is extracting so much of your time that you barely have time to enjoy the money you’re making, then, really, what are you doing? 

That said, as someone who was taught to work all the time, I wonder, down the line, do you get ahead when you’ve been committed to clocking in at 9:01 and out at 4:59? I was taught that dedication to the company, along with competence and experience, would eventually be rewarded with status—moving up to higher levels of responsibility and compensation. Do people who have strong boundaries have a chance to be promoted to the leadership level when every day, for years, they’re leaving on time, while a few others are staying late to put out symbolic fires at work? Then again, maybe it’s my Gen X bias that leads me to think that that’s what’s important. Maybe they don’t care enough about getting promoted to sacrifice their time.

I’ve watched millennials, and I have learned to put tremendous value on my time and to reject requests for it that don’t work for me. But this is new in my life. I’ve always made work the center of my life, and I’ve always worked as much as I could stand from early in the day until late. Not working made me feel guilty. I knew this wasn’t fair to me but I couldn’t escape it. Gen X criticized the rat race, and we dreamt of breaking away from it, but really, most of us just engaged in ways of coping with the stress of living at work—therapy, yoga, jogging, chemicals…

Millennials have found the answer to creating a work/life balance: just say no. I couldn’t imagine telling my boss, no, I won’t do that one more thing. No, I won’t stay a little late, but many millennials do just that with pride. It’s refreshing to watch them demand their boundaries be respected and to see them put themselves and their mental health ahead of their work demands. But I don’t know where this clash of cultures ends. Does it end with the always-working people as the managers of the 4:59 p.m. people but the 4:59ers are happier and more content with their lives than those of us who never leave the office and have more money? Or perhaps the 4:59ers will lead a revolution and reclaim 5:00 p.m. to 9 a.m. as the people’s time, unable to be infringed upon because no one should be a worker first. We should be people first. Our primary goal is not to be a worker or a consumer. It’s to be alive and to enjoy life. 

That sounds nice but I’m still a Gen Xer who works all the time—I’m writing this at 11:45 p.m. At some point, I’m going to try and see what it’s like having boundaries, but until then I’ll be available for any work questions or assignments, day or night, don’t hesitate to call, email, Slack or text with any questions.


Touré hosts the podcast “Touré Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.

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