When it comes to generational differences in the workplace, one of the more common distinctions made between the generations is that Traditionalists and Baby Boomers “live to work,” while Gen Xers and Millennials “work to live.” This is typically presented as a generation-specific quality; in other words, Baby Boomers have always lived to work, and Millennials will always work to live. Nothing could be further from the truth, and correcting this misperception will go a long way toward bridging a generational divide that often seems intractable.
Think of “work to live” and “live to work” as occupying opposite ends of a straight line. At one end, we have the pure “work to live” person, who does only what he/she must in order to get what he/she wants. At the other end, the perfect “live to work” person does whatever is necessary to get what he/she needs. That’s one way of looking at it, at least.
And in this envisioning, the typical professional career starts closer to the “work to live” side of the line and moves progressively toward the latter. This is irrespective of age, or culture, or generational indoctrination. This is simply what happens, and it happens because of the fairly predictable way in which the majority of us change as we age.
When we leave high school or college and first enter the professional world, most of us owe allegiance only to ourselves. Most of us aren’t married and don’t have mortgages or children, which means we are free to concentrate on our own desires. For this reason, most young people operate with a “work to live” mentality. This is absolutely not a Millennial quality, although Millennials might inhabit this mentality longer than previous generations because they are typically waiting longer to buy homes, get married, and have children. But nobody in the 1960s – literally nobody – would have classified the 20-something Baby Boomers as a “live to work” group of people.
However, the vast majority of us accumulate various duties and responsibilities as we age. We purchase homes and boats and rental properties and obligate ourselves to make enough money to support those purchases; we get married and have children and suddenly start thinking about the costs of college education and all the other desires our spouse and children might have for themselves. This is a natural process, and most of us enter into it willingly. And as we realize that we are no longer living our lives entirely on our own terms, we become more and more “live to work” people. We can fight against this if we choose, and plenty of people have decided not to allow their careers to completely dictate every facet of their lives. But there is no getting around the fact that the typical married homeowner is more “live to work” than her single, apartment-renting friend.
That’s not to say this must be a one-way process. Sometimes we shed responsibilities – get divorced or sell our expensive and burdensome vacation home – and that gives us the chance to return to a more “work to live” lifestyle. The most common incarnation of this typically happens near the end of our careers, when the kids are out of the house and our mortgage is ideally paid off. Then we opt for early retirement or decide not to fight for that next promotion – not because we don’t care about working hard, but because we’ve decided we don’t need to push as hard as we had to in the past. Obviously this isn’t true for everyone, but it is an easily recognizable trend.
In fact, it’s the exceptions that prove the rule. There are endless examples of 20-year-old “live to work” single parents, or never-married 46-year-old “work to live” playboys, or 64-year-olds with unemployed children who have no intention of relaxing their way into retirement because their reality precludes that option. We all know people who don’t fit the generational mold that’s been handed to us – so why do we keep repeating this “work-to-live/live-to-work” dichotomy as though it’s somehow dependent upon the year in which we were born?
Bottom line, if you’re trying to disinter the motivations that govern your workforce, do yourself a favor. Ignore whatever convenient (and useless) generational labels you’ve been given, and instead pay attention to what stage of life your people are currently in. Doing so will almost certainly tell you more about their attitude toward work, life, and the balance between them than anything else.