Young professionals pledge admiration for peers who carve out personal time, then fail to do the same for themselves

By Callum Borchers May 11, 2023 12:01 am ET

Early-career professionals prize work-life balance. Turns out many are bad at it.

The youngest people in the office say the peers they most admire carve out personal time and live life on their own terms. Fancy titles and fat salaries are far less impressive, according to Deloitte’s annual survey of millennials and Gen Zers, shared with The Wall Street Journal ahead of next week’s release.

Yet those young professionals are roughly twice as likely to say their jobs are important to their own sense of identity as they are to define themselves by hobbies, volunteering or exercise. They applaud friends and co-workers who prioritize self-care or take that backpacking sabbatical to Europe, résumé gap be damned. Then they answer another weekend email while their Peloton gathers dust.

Stephanie McCarty PHOTO: JOSH MCCARTY “

My peers who use their vacation days and set their out-of-office reply—I am their biggest cheerleader,” says Stephanie McCarty, chief marketing officer of real-estate development firm Taylor Morrison in Scottsdale, Ariz. “But it is so hard to put that into practice for myself.”

Ms. McCarty, 38, says she sometimes dreams of being reincarnated as a yogi. For now, she works 60-hour weeks and settles for yoga classes on Thursday nights and Sunday mornings.

Though today’s young professionals say they generally don’t value hard work as highly as their predecessors, according to a recent Wall Street Journal-NORC survey, many nevertheless fixate on success. Work-obsessed 20- and 30-somethings say the recession of the aughts and the pandemic have contributed to a sense that their financial and life goals could be unattainable if they don’t chase wins while they can.They add that their cohort’s overall aversion to hustle culture makes their brand of careerism unique. Their parents took pride in grinding, but they feel guilty for not setting boundaries. It’s hard for them to square their ethos of you-only-live-once with the overtime required to crush it at work.

Catherine Smith Licari PHOTO: NELA KEKIC

Time for tennis—someday

Catherine Smith Licari, founder of a small-business consulting firm called Cash Flow for Creatives, carries a card emblazoned with the phrase “work-life balance” in her wallet because, she says, it’s one of her core values.

So, what does she do for fun?

Ms. Smith Licari, 34, is thinking of signing up for tennis. She bought a racket last weekend and figures she’ll slow down and have more time for nonwork activities in six months. Then again, she told herself the same thing six months ago.

While Ms. Smith Licari encourages her few employees to unplug and avoids contacting them after hours whenever possible, she makes herself available to clients at any time.

Perhaps that’s the price of entrepreneurship, but rank-and-file workers with structured hours say they, too, fail to protect personal time, despite their best efforts.

Ishani Kejriwal, 26, works for a software company in Chicago and is so committed to the idea of work-life balance that she mutes job-related notifications on her phone.

Go ahead, send her a Slack message at 8 p.m. on Tuesday or an email on Saturday. She won’t see it until she opens her computer during business hours. She escapes the pings and dings of round-the-clock alerts, yet work still lives in her head, rentfree. “I can set boundaries around my hours, but I struggle with setting boundaries around my emotions,” she says. “My friends and I talk about work a lot. We think about work a lot. We feel the pressure of having to work, and we’re not able to maketime for other things.”

As a daughter of immigrants, Ms. Kejriwal says she feels driven to professional achievement by her parents’ sacrifices, so work is usually foremost in her mind. Still, she says she admires peers who appear to break free, mentally or geographically by living the #vanlife. All for show Plenty of people feign work-life balance, several other young professionals told me.

They make a show of setting limits or post recreational photos on social media to suggest that they have robust personal lives when, in reality, they’re just as consumed by their jobs as everyone else.

Josh Lospinoso, the 36-year-old chief executive of cybersecurity firm Shift5, says he learned the concept of performative balance when he was a Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford.
“It’s this idea that if you’re up late at night studying and you’re not out at the pub, then you’re a try-hard and that’s not an admirable quality,” he says. He sees the same dynamic at play in the workplace, where it’s cool to be young and successful but decidedly uncool to look like you do well by giving everything to your job.

Daniel Zauderer, executive director of Grassroots Grocery, a New York City nonprofit, took a few days off this month to hike in the Catskills. In the fresh mountain air, he says, he was already planning the LinkedIn post he would write about the importance of taking breaks—which he seldom does.

Mr. Zauderer, 35, ran a marathon last fall but says training was more like an extension of work than a hobby. He did it to raise about $60,000 for his organization, which he started as a side hustle in 2020 while teaching sixth-grade humanities in the Bronx. He quit teaching a year later and poured those hours onto what he was already putting into the nonprofit. So he still works the equivalent of two full-time jobs. Sometimes he wishes he could be more like peers who treat work like one small piece of their identities, or claim to. “There’s just something within me that doesn’t allow that,” he says. “I envy people that can do it.”