Dr. Isis is reconsidering the work-life balance issues with her usual thoughtfulness over at her blog, following on a longer conversation about the ways that this problem is (unfairly, obviously) shunted exclusively onto women. This is something I agree with – and I think her “Sack up, Dudes” is probably the most concise and accurate answer to the problem of inequities between men and women in the home.
As much as I totally agree with Isis that the shifting of the problem onto women is just plain old wrong (and it should be obvious that this is not something that happens in my house (if anything, the story should probably be “Sack up, Sharon”…although that sounds sort of wrong to me ;-)), I do think that all this discussion of work-life balance misses something basic – that the reason it is so hard to achieve this is not just that men get off the hook, it is not just that male participation in domestic life is insufficient in many households – it is that our entire industrial society requires a level of participation in the formal workforce that is virtually unheard of (Juliet Schor finds in _The Overworked American_ that the only people in human history that ever consistently worked harder than us were early 19th century factory and mill workers).
We have naturalized this assumption of our time, the externalization of the costs of domestic life, the constant exhaustion, the idea that things like caring for kids and elders and participation in the informal economy are luxury lifestyle choices for which accomodation by the workplace is wholly optional. We instead begin talking about this primarily as a gender issue, as though were our partners, male or female to get off their asses, we would naturally be able to achieve this magical thing called work-life balance. But balance can only be achieved when two things are equally weighted – and that’s manifestly not the case between work and life in our society, particularly American society.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally for full equitization of domestic labor – indeed, I’m in favor of everyone doing more of it. But this question of work-life balance cannot be dealt with wholly in the realm of the personal, in the realm of gender, or even in the realm of public responses – that is, it might be better for some people to have good free daycare or elder care, but none of that addresses the basic question of whether work has the right to edge life out in the way it does. The underlying assumption of much of our society – even critiques of our larger society like feminism, is that it does. I’m not so sure that’s right, or the costs to society as a whole in climate gasses emitted and social capital abandoned could be justified.
But even if you could make a justification for such a system in good times, when we are rich in money, jobs and energy, and then could justify the fact that work has almost wholly displaced life and thus most people spend time feeling they’ve failed to create a mythical “balance” in a society that puts all the weight on work and almost none on home and family life, I’m not sure that justification could extend in a time of fewer jobs, less money and less energy.
Are the societal benefits of the erasure of home life justified, when that means that millions of unemployed people who have lost their jobs feel they have lost everything, because their domestic life does not exist, and thus cannot be a refuge? Are those societal benefits justified when grandma is kicked out of her assisted living home because her stock market gains no longer support her? Are they justified when energy becomes increasingly costly, and we use fossil fuels to replace domestic labor that could be easily done in the home? As we get poorer, the power the industrial economy and corporations have over their employees gets greater – at the just the moment that we most need to begin to reclaim our lives.
These are question we absolutely have to ask, with complicated answers. So with Dr. Isis I absolutely declare to men (and those women) who do not do their share of work in the home “Sack up, Dudes.” But to everyone, we’re going to have to ask for a deeper consideration of work and life – and that involves some universal sacking up.