By Lindsey Pollak
One of my biggest surprises when I first started speaking about career issues on college campuses was the number of students who asked me questions about work/life balance.
College women (and more than a few men) as early as their freshman year were asking me about how to build a career that would enable them to have flexibility for child rearing, service projects, travel or other pursuits.
When I started my own career in the late 1990s, I can honestly say that balance was not on my radar screen. I had the belief that the early years of my career should be spent working long, hard hours and building my experience and contacts. (Mind you, this was during the heady dot-com glory days of Generation X, so we all had a secret belief that maybe we’d hit it big and retire early on our dot com millions anyway.)
Whether it’s increased media attention to the topic of balance, the fact that the majority of Gen Ys grew up with working moms, the long-lasting “What does it all mean?” effect of 9/11 or other factors, attitudes about balance among young people have definitely changed. Work/life balance is now a Gen Y career issue whether older workers are surprised by this fact or not.
If you’re a young professional wanting a career with balance, here are some suggestions:
1. Get clear on your priorities. While I want you to have it all, I also have enough experience to know that compromises are often necessary, especially when you’re just starting out. For instance, when I first launched my own business, I had a ton of flexibility and freedom, but I was also making less money and had to pay for my own health insurance. That was a compromise I was willing to make because independence was my number one priority.
2. Be realistic. A major complaint I hear from entry-level recruiters is that Gen Ys feel entitled to flexibility and vacation time from day one of a new job. This isn’t always reasonable. Most jobs really do need you to be there all day, every day, at least during the first several months when you are learning the ropes. You can certainly ask about flexible hours or time off when interviewing for a job, but be realistic about how soon you might be able to take advantage of such policies.
3. Do your homework. There are still many industries where balance is just not part of the culture (investment banking and law being the prime examples). While there has been some movement in these industries (for example, law firms considering a project fee model rather than billable hours), the reality is that an entire industry is not going to change its culture overnight. Do your research to find out whether a particular industry is known for a lack of balance and stay away if balance is at the top of your list of career priorities.
4. Create pockets of balance. Finally, remember that balance doesn’t have to be “given” to you. Even if you’re working hard and have a demanding boss, you can find ways to integrate your personal needs with your professional ambition. Even small moments can add up to more happiness. For instance, you can take a gym class during your lunch break, go for a brief walk around the block each afternoon and listen to your favorite music, walk over and chat with a friendly colleague or join an internal community service group that does charity work. These types of activities will give you a respite in a busy day and may end up boosting your career prospects as well.
Are you a Gen Y who has found a good work/life balance? Please share your tips and stories!