Are You Living to Work or Working to Live? Here’s the Difference

senior woman looking pensive at home with laptop

Adobe Stock / goodluz

Profile Picture
Taylor Tobin1.84k
April 14, 2024 at 4:55AM UTC

A sizable percentage of young people in today’s working world have heard some version of this statement from their older relatives: “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life!” Baby boomers taught their children to pursue careers about which they feel “passionate,” although many of the boomers themselves, instead, opted for stable jobs that brought in reliable paychecks, but maybe didn’t fit their youthful professional aspirations. 

The discrepancies between these attitudes beg the question: is it better to “live to work” (i.e. to feel deeply invested in and fulfilled by your career and to spend a great deal of your time and energy on related pursuits) or to “work to live” (i.e. to accept a role that may not excite you, but which gives you the means to pursue hobbies, to travel and to otherwise spend your free time in ways that satisfy you)?

Let's begin by stating that there’s no “wrong” answer to this question. Following the career path that makes sense for you should be your goal, whether it’s fueled by passion or by more practical motivations. We, instead, seek to demystify the differences between the two approaches to one’s career and help you select the one that best fits your unique journey.

Living to work

Maybe you’re someone who absolutely loves heading to the office everyday. Or, even if you don’t totally love it, you feel enough of a connection to your professional growth to feel that forward momentum urging you to show up and give it your all on a consistent basis. People who fit into this category are often described as "living to work."

If you’re a millennial or a Gen Z-er, you may have been conditioned to believe that success can only occur when you feel a deep personal link to the work that you do for a paycheck. Of course, that’s not the case in many instances. But for certain positions (like upper management roles, doctors and stock traders), a genuine devotion and dedication to the work can mitigate the long hours, arduous educational requirements and high levels of pressure. 

Working to live

On the flip side, many people choose to separate the notion of “doing what you love” from the concept of “doing what’s required to make a living.” For a wide swath of the population, going to college to “discover your passion” is a foreign notion entirely removed from their realities. 

Whether due to circumstances or personal philosophies, some people decide to accept jobs based on the need for a certain level of financial security. They want a steady, regular form of employment that provides them with stable paychecks and compensates them enough to cover both basic necessities and items and experiences that bring them personal joy. These can include participating in hobbies, making travel plans and spending more time with friends and family. Those who “work to live” perform their jobs well, but they don’t consider their careers a top priority in the context of their own lives, except in economic terms.

The role of over-engagement

While feeling a true commitment to your work seems like an all-around desirable situation, some workers run the risk of taking their dedication too far, ultimately compromising their health and the quality of their lives outside of the professional sphere. 

There’s a reason why work-life balance receives so much attention from career advisors; in order to consistently produce strong results and to present yourself as a viable candidate for promotions and raises, you must keep your energy levels predictably high. Thus, it’s crucial to take time to fully separate yourself from your work agenda and your upcoming tasks and to instead focus on external matters of importance. 

Passionate employees often struggle with this task, which can compromise their overall satisfaction and their potential for professional advancement. 

When your situation changes

Sometimes, a professional will enter her career with a full-throttle “live to work” philosophy. She’s challenged and excited by her work, she invests an abundance of hours and effort, she reaps rewards like promotions and pay increases, but then, her circumstances change. 

Maybe her company experiences a round of layoffs and her job is among those eliminated. Maybe the responsibilities associated with her role change to the point where her enthusiasm becomes compromised. Maybe her personal life includes complications that force her to reprioritize the importance of enjoying her work and instead to focus on earning more capital. 

Life shifts happen, priorities ebb and flow and as a member of today’s workforce, it’s important to restrain the urge to blame yourself for a shift in your perspective. As we said previously, “work to live” and “live to work” are both completely normal and understandable approaches, and even if your viewpoint changes throughout the course of your career, it’s not a reflection of who you are as a person or as a professional. Keeping a flexible attitude and allowing for situational adjustments makes you an adaptable problem-solver, which is always a desirable trait regardless of your industry.

Choosing to do neither

Of course, “living to work” and “working to live” aren’t the only options available to adults of employment age. It’s absolutely possible to merge these points of view and to find a happy medium. And, in some cases, people elect to separate themselves from the choice entirely by leaving the workforce. For instance, about 20% of American parents choose to stay at home with a new child. Apart from parenthood, the decision to leave the workforce can come from a sudden windfall in the form of a successful investment or a sizable inheritance. 

However, the most common leaving-the-workforce experience comes in the form of retirement. When you reach retirement age and decide to bring your career to an end, that can be a difficult adjustment, particularly if you once fell into the “live to work” demographic. To combat the challenges of this new phase of life, psychologist Ken Dychtwald advised the members of the AARP to think of retirement as “a time of new beginnings and making new friends. [Developing social connections] creates healthy brains and more vibrant people.”

Don’t miss out on articles like these. Sign up!

Why women love us:

  • Daily articles on career topics
  • Jobs at companies dedicated to hiring more women
  • Advice and support from an authentic community
  • Events that help you level up in your career
  • Free membership, always