By Ann Brenoff
Senior Editor @ The Huffington Post
Anya Strzemien may have hit on the Holy Grail of work-life balance and it’s this: Let’s just all work part-time. Midlifers have been caught in the vise grip of work, taking care of our kids, taking care of our parents and, on occasion, taking care of our much overdue need for a pedicure (but unfortunately, not so much this last one).
Strzemien is 33 (and doesn’t have kids); she has worked for the last half-dozen years here at the Huffington Post as the top Style editor. She recently asked for and got a semi-sabbatical of sorts — a reduction of her hours for a few months while she and her fiance spent the winter in the Los Angeles sunshine instead of the New York cold — made possible by an apartment-swap with friends. Just asking for such a consideration in a still-shaky economy can take Lena Dunham-level courage without the sex.
Once Strzemien applied the brakes to the pace of her job’s demands, it didn’t take her long to figure out this truism that a lot of midlifers still struggle with: Working in a part-time job, if you can afford it, is the way to go. It can be just as fulfilling and meaningful as the one that stakes a claim to your every waking hour. And, amazingly, she found, you can actually accomplish a great deal when you aren’t walking around fried all the time. “I really maximized the hours I did work so I was getting more bang for my buck work-wise,” she said.
What Strzemien discovered is that a 24-hour day just doesnt have enough room in it for a 12- or 14-hour commitment to staring at a computer screen. Them’s fighting words for someone working in the digital space. She describes days when she rarely felt fresh air, ate more than one meal at her desk, and her mobile devices felt more like a parolee’s ankle bracelet than a useful tool.
Part-time work is “basically the solution to everything,” said a much-happier Strzemien, who is ending her part-time leave and about to return to full-time hours (refreshed for sure, but certainly wistful). She’s been working a five-hour day since January and says she feels like she’s “cracked the code on work-life balance.” And it’s this: You need to work and play in equal amounts. “That’s where the balance comes in,” she said. She realizes that most jobs don’t give you this option, but maybe they should.
And of course there is the 800-pound gorilla we all see in our paths: the affordability question. I’m sure at least a few of you are shaking their heads about now and saying “Yeah, but I can’t live on less.” Well, actually you can; you just have to want to.
Truth is, we spend to our capacity. No matter how much I ever managed to earn, I managed to spend it. We adjust our lifestyles to our income level. (In Strzemien’s case she’s not sure what she would do without Trader Joe’s food and wine.) It becomes a matter of learning to live on less. Fewer meals out in exchange for more meals around the dinner table with the family. Fewer surfing trips to Hawaii but having the energy and time to paddle out to watch the sunrise from your board off the beach that’s a half-mile away. Community college for our kids instead of the four-year alma mater that now takes six years to complete. And figuring out what’s seriously more important to you: Your health, your stress level, your happiness vs. your sense of self-importance that comes from responding to the boss’ text within 15 seconds.
So before you shoot down my young friend’s plan, at least hear it out. It only works when we all get on board and commit to change the corporate culture. In the world inspired by Strzemien, all jobs would be 25 hours a week under a giant job-sharing plan. An employer would adjust pay accordingly and stagger schedules based on the company’s need — remember shift work? Yes, pay is a bit higher for the less attractive shifts, but remember that what is a less-attractive work shift for someone in one life stage is ideal for someone in another. I’m happy to be at my desk by 7 a.m. if it means I can leave and meet the school bus. The single guy who sits across from me has heard about 7 a.m., but has likely never seen it.
Who makes decisions if everyone is working fewer hours? The same better-skilled, more-experienced people. In Strzemien’s case, several of her deputies were trained and empowered to run the day-to-day operations. Big decisions wait for her. She works the last five hours of our corporate day, ensuring that nothing is held up overnight waiting for her sign-off. HuffPost editors in general are encouraged to be very self-sufficient; it’s how we roll. And if mistakes are made, we aren’t quick to crucify.
At 25 hours a week, most large employers will still pay for your health insurance, and there’s an upside for them to do that as well. Stress is a killer and we’d all be a lot healthier if we worked less and played more. Fewer claims to the company’s insurance policy means lower bills. Companies recognized this reality with smoking and did their darndest to help workers quit the cancer-stick habit. Why not accept that stress is responsible for a lot of what ails us?
Think about it: More time to be with your family, your friends, take hikes, cook healthier food, sleep more, read more, think more, breath more. There’s not a yoga class on the planet that can deliver what a 25-hour work week could.
And yes, there would be less money to live on. I say let’s practice clipping coupons and see how it goes. Actually, what I say is, I think the Workplace Messiah has arrived and she’s a Style editor at the Huffington Post.