Most discussions of “work-life balance” are narrowly focused on the concerns of a minority of workers – those who are married with children. We hear a lot about how parents need the flexibility to leave work to attend their kids’ games or plays or take them to the dentist. We hear about how couples need to coordinate their vacation schedules. We also hear all about how married workers need time to deal with all their chores at home.
What we should hear more about are the concerns of people who are single and do not have kids. In many places all around the world, rates of marriage are falling. Family sizes are shrinking, too, as people have fewer kids or none at all. That means there are more and more people in the workplace who do not have a spouse and there are also growing numbers who do not have children (including people who are and are not single). Their lives need to be taken seriously. From a social justice perspective, their lives should be taken seriously even if there were very few of them in the workplace.
In the UK, researchers Krystal Wilkinson, Jennifer Tomlinson, and Jean Gardiner wanted to hear directly from single people about how they “reconcile their work and their lives outside of work.” They chose to focus on people between the ages of 25 and 44 who live alone and who are managers and professionals. They recruited 36 people who fit that description, mostly from the Greater Manchester area, and interviewed them, in person, for an average of about 90 minutes. Although none of the 36 participants were married or cohabiting, two had romantic partners they saw infrequently and three were just starting new romantic relationships.
When I wrote Singled Out, I made up chapter titles that made fun of the myths about single people. To mock the myth that for single people, “It is all about you,” I wrote this subtitle: “Like a child, you are self-centered and immature and your time isn’t worth anything since you have nothing to do but play.” The managers and professionals interviewed by Wilkinson and her colleagues said that the people around them in the workplace seemed to believe such things.
The participants described four things that other people got wrong when they thought about time in the lives of people who are single.
First, other people think that what single people do with their time outside of work is all about leisure. Or, as I put it in Singled Out, they think single people “have nothing to do but play.”
Second, others believe that time away from work is less important for people who live alone than for those who live with their families.
Third, other people in the workplace seem to think that single people don’t need any flexibility in their work schedules.
Fourth, other people in the workplace seem to believe that what single people do with their time away from work is less important and is a less legitimate reason for wanting the same time off that their coworkers who are married parents get.
Now let’s consider what single people really are doing with their time away from work.
One thing they are doing is managing a household, and if they live alone, they are managing it on their own. A worker who is married or cohabiting may go home to someone who has already picked up the groceries and started dinner. Not so for the single person living alone. As a 40-something-year-old woman quipped:
“…shopping, cleaning, the car, the house, the washing, you know all that kind of thing…well, who do you think is going to do it – the DIY fairy?”
Single people also spend time on educational activities. In fact, a time-use survey found that the biggest difference in how single and married people spend their time is that single people devote more time to pursuing their education.
Single people exercise more than married people do. Some people might see this as confirming their stereotypes – see, single people are just playing! Others might point out that exercise is a health-enhancing activity. If single people did not exercise much, they would be scolded for not caring about their own health.
Single people often have interests and passions they want to pursue. In fact, one study showed that over a five-year period, lifelong single people experienced more personal growth than continuously married people did.
In Wilkinson’s study, there was one particular way that singles spent their time away from work that they mentioned often, valued very highly, and saw as mostly unappreciated by other people in the workplace: tending to their friends. Other people, such as immediate and extended family members, matter to single people, too.
I think this is the most important point to come out of the study. The significance of friendship has been mostly missing from the many previous discussions of balancing work life with life outside of work. I’ll devote a separate blog post to that topic sometime soon.
Whatever it is that single workers want to do with their time when they want to leave work the same time as everyone else or have the option of free weekends or dibs on vacation time, it is often considered less legitimate than what married people, especially married parents, want to do with their time. Sometimes single people agree with their coworkers that caring for kids should take priority over other activities. But then sometimes those same single people have second thoughts about the matter. As one of the single men told the researchers:
“…but you know, we get paid the same salary, basically, so why is my going home less important?”
Wilkinson, K., Tomlinson, J., & Gardiner, J. (2017). Exploring the work-life challenges and dilemmas faced by managers and professionals who live alone. Work, Employment and Society, 31, 640-656.