On Sunday, I learned that Young People Are Going to Save Us All From Office Life, and wow, was I annoyed. Tuesday morning, when I was navigating the Oakland airport at 5:05 am, I realized why. The morning radio hosts had probably left their apartments in San Bruno or Castro Valley at 3:30 am so they could sound cheery AF when I drove over there. The TSA agents, the Southwest gate agents, the lady selling People magazine at the kiosk, and the line cooks at the breakfast joint near Gate 28 were all on their way to work when my alarm went off at 4:30 am. There are so many people whose work hours and work-life balance cannot be shifted or made flexible, and almost all of them are service workers.
A friend of mine works for a major healthcare company in workforce planning. That means she figures out what jobs they’ll need in the future and who will do them. This “millennial flex force” issue is a big deal for her because the people she hires in human resources believe that they should get this flexible lifestyle while the rest of their operation — hospitals, medical offices — need to be staffed 24/7 or at least 12/6. You can’t “work from home” when you are a nurse or a physical therapist. You definitely cannot work from home when you are a janitor or a phlebotomist.
And that’s just one industry. Waitresses, mechanics, firefighters, assembly line workers — every industry has a stratum of jobs that resist flexibility.
By cultivating a white-collar workforce that sees flexibility and work-life balance as a given, we create a management class that does not see or reward the contributions of the fixed workforce. We overlook how we could improve the working conditions for folks who must commute, punch a timecard, perform for the duration of their scheduled shift and then slog back home to their distant suburbs (because they are priced out of the housing market near their jobs by middle-/upper middle-class home-based workers).
I don’t have anything against flex work. I am a lawyer in a solo practice. Sometimes I work from an office; sometimes I work at a client’s location; and sometimes, I blow off work and take the dog for a hike. It’s a great life. My flexible work schedule is one of the most tangible benefits I have and I treasure it over benefits that an employer might offer me to travel to an office every day. Flexibility is a form of compensation that I get for being a legal professional. I’m not entitled to it; I negotiated it with myself (since I’m the employer, too). The trade-offs are inconsistent income and no benefits. Gee thanks, boss.
The work-from-home Millenials who are supposedly saving us all from office work are also receiving flexibility as a benefit in exchange for both their work and for waiver of other benefits, like retirement security and an eight-hour workday. If we want ALL workers, including fixed work service workers, to have a better work-life balance, we need to provide affordable housing, better wages, portable benefits, and extended family leaves. We need to stop thinking that ALL workers are modeled after professional workers. We need to stop thinking flexibility is our god-given right instead of a trade-off for a human-centered workplace, Let’s remember all the people who show up every day to clean up our messes, care for our children, our elderly and our ailing, and generally keep our world spinning on its axis. How will we honor their work-life balance?