Millennials Want a Work-Life Balance—Their Bosses Just Don’t Get Why

November 1, 2015

Workers around the globe have been finding it harder to juggle the demands of work and the rest of life in the past 5 years, a new report shows, with many working longer hours, deciding to delay or forgo having children, discontinuing education, or struggling to pay tuition for their children.


A big reason is the economy: Professional workers in companies that shed employees in the Great Recession are still doing the work of 2 or more people and working longer hours. Salaries have stagnated, and costs continue to rise, according to a new survey of nearly 10,000 workers in 8 countries by Ernst & Young’s Global Generations Research.

But another big reason? The boss just does not get it. Close to 80% of Millennials surveyed are part of dual-income couples in which both work full time. Of Generation X workers, people in their 30s and 40s now, 73% are. But of Baby Boomers, the generation born just after World War II that now occupies most top management positions, just 47% have a full-time working spouse. More than a quarter of Baby-Boomer workers have a spouse at home, or one who works part time or with flexible hours and is responsible for taking care of all home-front duties.

“I really see that there’s an empathy gap in the workplace,” said Karyn Twaronite, EY global-diversity and inclusiveness officer. “When there’s frustration about work-life balance in the workplace, and you think your boss doesn’t get it, that very likely could be true. ”

Younger workers see that technology frees them to work productively from anywhere, she said. But older bosses who are more accustomed to work cultures with more face time may see only empty cubicles. “They’re afraid people who don’t come to the office won’t work as hard,” she said.

Millennial workers, the group that companies say they are scrambling to attract and retain, are the most dissatisfied. Survey after survey, including the EY one, show that what Millennials most want is flexibility in where, when, and how they work. Millennials as well as men were most likely in the survey to say that they would take a pay cut, forgo a promotion, or be willing to move to manage work-life demands better.

Yet the survey found that 1 in 6 reports suffering negative consequences for having a flexible schedule. Lack of flexibility was cited among the top reasons millennials quit jobs. And nearly 40% of young workers, male or female, in the United States are so unhappy with the lack of paid parental-leave policies that they say they would be willing to move to another country.

“A figure like that certainly shifts the conversation from paid parental-leave being a ‘nice to have’ to being a ‘need to have’ for companies,” Twaronite said.

In the United States, the only advanced economy in the world with no paid parental-leave policy, only 9% of companies offered fully paid maternity-leave benefits to workers in 2014, down from 16% in 2008, according to the Families and Work Institute’s National Study of Employers. For spouses and partners, 14% of U.S. companies offer paid leave, either partially or fully paid, down from 16% in 2008.

The institute found that the share of employers offering reduced hours and career flexibility also has fallen and that flexible work options are not available to all employees, but only to certain groups, such as parents.

 “Wanting flexibility or work-life balance is the number one thing we hear all the time from candidates. It’s the number one reason why people are looking for a new job, by far,” said Heidi Parsont, who runs TorchLight, a recruiting firm in Alexandria, Virginia. “We’re definitely seeing more candidates asking for it. But companies still see it as making an exception. It’s still not the norm.”

Ryan Shaw, 23, is a case in point. He doesn’t have children, yet he rates work-life balance as not only important but also “necessary for success.”

Shaw does social media marketing for a start-up in Los Angeles called Forcefield. He liked his job. But he did not like living in Los Angeles, where his expensive rent kept him from being able to pay down his astronomical student loans. He had other job offers that would have given him more money but demanded more work hours.

He had a different idea. He told his boss that he would stay at the company, but only if he could do his job from his laptop, wherever and whenever he wanted. His boss agreed.

So Shaw is moving back home to Florida.

“The narrative that’s always drawn is you have to choose financial success or personal success [and] having a life. And to me, that’s a false choice,” Shaw said. “I think you can have both. I’m sort of playing the long game. I want to take care of my health and have deep relationships with people I care most about. And not just people who happen to be in the same building with me everyday.”