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Solo, No Kids: What About Work-Life Balance?

The misunderstandings about solo people and their lives outside of work.

Concerns about the balance between work life and life outside of work typically focus on workers who are coupled with children. But what about people who live alone and do not have kids?

Krystal Wilkinson, of Manchester Metropolitan University, and her colleagues conducted in-depth interviews with 36 managers and professionals in the UK who were living alone and had no children. They ranged in age from 25 to 44. Three-quarters were White and British. There were equal numbers of men and women.

The interviewees were asked about their work life, their life outside of work, and how they balanced the two. The findings were reported in “Exploring the work-life challenges and dilemmas faced by managers and professionals who live alone,” published in Work, Employment, and Society.

Although these managers and professionals often worked long and unpredictable hours, most of them were enthusiastic about their work and their careers. They did have concerns about balancing their work life with their life outside of work. A common theme was that their coworkers who were coupled with children did not always understand that people who live alone also have a life outside of work that is just as valuable and meaningful as anyone else’s.

Coworkers Make Demeaning Assumptions About Time Outside of Work

In my book, Singled Out, I wrote chapter subtitles that mocked the myths about single people. One of them was, “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 in this study, many of whom were highly educated, reported something similar. Their coworkers with kids often thought that the time the solo people spent away from work was all about relaxing and having fun.

Many of the solo-living participants, though, thought their time outside of work was meaningful and important. Often, their colleagues did not seem to appreciate that people who live alone typically cover all the chores inside and outside the home on their own. They typically pay for everything, too, rather than splitting expenses with someone else.

People who live alone and have no kids often greatly value their friends. It takes time to cultivate and maintain meaningful friendships. Those who want coupled relationships need time to find a partner.

Personal development, professional development, pursuing more education, spending time with relatives as well as friends, and exercising were among the many engagements outside of work that the solo people valued. To them, their personal time wasn’t just about frivolous pursuits.

Life Outside of Work Is Considered Less Important

Even if their coupled coworkers with kids did realize that the solo workers had other things to do with their time than just relax, they often regarded those pursuits as less important. When coupled coworkers with kids wanted to leave work early, or to have flexible schedules, those concerns were regarded as more legitimate. The solo managers and professionals with no kids sometimes felt reluctant to say no to requests to stay later. They knew how that would be regarded.

This is a fairness issue, an example of singlism. As one man in the study said, “You know, we get paid the same salary basically, so why is my going home less important?”

Vulnerabilities Aren't Recognized

During a time when workers were getting laid off, their coupled-with-kids coworkers sometimes said things like, “Oh it’s all right for you, you’re single, you can go anywhere.” But to the solo workers, getting laid off would not be all right at all—they typically have no one else to cover their rent, mortgage, or any other expenses.

The assumption that solo workers can easily just pick up and leave is misguided in another way, too. Often, solo workers have invested time and effort into cultivating friendships that they value deeply. Those friends are often their sources of emotional support and companionship. They don’t want to move away from them.

Some solo workers are also attached to the places where they live. And many love the jobs they have. In fact, I wonder whether some of the single workers might be more attached to their work than their coupled colleagues. Their work choices are more likely to be their own; in a couple, one or both people may have settled for jobs in a place that accommodated both of them.

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