Rethinking Careers So That Work And Life Actually Balance
What would happen if no one started full-time work until age 40?
Some days, it feels like work-life balance is not only difficult, but an impossible contradiction. Right when you’re hitting your stride at work, your biological clock is ticking down ominously. Then, you have a kid — only to find you’re putting in 36-hour days between work and home, as the demands of both peak. Six months of maternity leave is great (or would be, with equal paternity leave), but what of the next 4.5 years, before kids start school? or 10 to 12 years, before kids can be reasonably left alone?
It’s this paradox — that our professional and private lives are often simultaneously most demanding — that has prompted psychologist Laura Carstensen to rethink what both should look like. The life and work arc most of us follow – working a full-time job and advancing, and caring for children and aging parents, all coming to a head roughly in our 30s and 40s — is outdated, she told Quartz recently.
Carstensen’s work focuses on work-life balance from the other side — that is, “redesigning institutions to accommodate the lives that people actually have.” Which means taking into account how life spans have lengthened. On average, a 40-year-old American woman can live for another 45 years, with 5% living till age 100. For men, it’s 42 more years on average, after turning 40, she says. (Indian life spans are similarly lengthening.) We stay healthy, strong and sharp for longer. Therefore, for most people, to continue working into their so-called retirement years is totally doable, as long as it is not strenuous physical labor.
So, why are we still trying to squeeze all of our work into a span of 40 years, starting in our 20s, and abruptly retiring at age 60 to 65? Our present style of hectic career advancement, “…fails to recognize all the other demands on our time. People are working full-time at the same time they’re raising children. You never get a break. You never get to step out. You never get to refresh… We go at this unsustainable pace, and then pull the plug,” Carstensen says.
Rather than this kind of sprint, careers should be more like a marathon with pausing points along the way for learning, family, and a life outside the workplace, she says. Carstensen proposes that full-time work should not even begin before age 40. That way, people could spend more time in education and apprenticeships, and focus on starting and caring for a family during kids’ most dependent years. At 40, with fewer demands from family life and education, full-time work could kick in. Over the next few decades, we would work full-time steadily, ultimately retiring by age 80, after a gradual tapering that involved returning to part-time work.
This model would come with very different compromises and compartmentalizing. For instance, the struggling student life would stretch longer, Carstensen acknowledges, while working at an older age may mean less time spent with grandchildren.
But perhaps those are small prices to pay, if it means the pressure to ‘do it all’ is eased. The whole point of Carstensen’s model is that people wouldn’t have to ‘do it all,’ at least not all at once.
It’s an interesting proposition that may be most appealing to working women, who historically have born the brunt of the conflict between career and family. As we recently reported, globally, women perform 76% of the kind of unpaid care work (child care, housework, elder care) that competes with professional work for time and energy in the day. Little wonder that in India, the number of women deciding not to do both is increasing.
It’s a trend that means men remain sole breadwinners in a world that is rapidly requiring two for families’ financial stability. Little wonder, too, that mental health struggles due to the rat race of modern, urban work-life, appear to be increasing.
We should address the mindsets that default to and perpetuate this gendered divide, but we should also acknowledge there is something fundamental about the current nature of work that necessitates a divide at all, that makes it difficult for anyone and everyone to have equitable and involved work and home lives.
Work-life balance, in the current world, requires constant reevaluation and trade-off between competing priorities. Carstensen’s model might not be the grand secret to living a balanced and satisfying life, but it does recast work-life balance as a series of staggered, non-competitive opportunities and priorities. And that sounds like a change worth considering, for everyone.
“There is no real reason why we need to work this way. The hardest thing is, how does [change] start?” said Carstensen.