Work-Life Balance Reconsidered

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.


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Yes. Thank you.
I've always been deeply frustrated by and resentful of the need to take most of my time away from the things that matter most to me -- the domestic life you speak of so eloquently -- in order to earn enough money to keep us in food and veterinary care, and a roof. And have always just kept telling myself, 'well, tough.' Now with my industry dying, we're hoping to make a change to a lifestyle we will enjoy, that, we hope!, will still pay the bills -- a small market garden and CSA.
Time will tell.

Hear, hear. This is the argument I often find missing in the work-life balance discussion. In addition to work taking too large of a percentage, I also think what we have normalized as necessary parenting (or intensive mothering) also contributes to the sense of imbalance.

My wife is a health care professional with variable hours. Some morning shifts and some evening shifts. So on some days she leaves the house before our child gets up and on other days she returns after our child is in bed. She also has to work every other weekend. Due to her work schedule, I am the primary care giver for our child. And I love being that. My employer (an academic department), not so much.

I was told flat out by my mentor when I started as a professor that for 5 years I should be a stranger to my family and that after gaining tenure, I could take a sabbatical somewhere to reconnect with them. Because of things like that, we are looking to purchase some farm land so that I can get out of such a toxic environment and be the farmer and house husband and caregiver.

But even when it is a man making the concessions, it still sucks that concessions have to be made. Yet, do we really want there to be a lack of health care because we make concessions to the health care providers?

I have always thought that there should be part time jobs with benefits so a husband and wife could each work a part time job if they so choose. They could spend more time with kids, probably spend much less money on childcare and convenience products (purchased due to too little time)and have a more balanced life. I think one of the big obstacles is the need for employer provided health insurance.

One aspect of this problem, Sharon, is that we live now in a very heavily capitalistic, market economy in which profit maximization is the norm. It's something most everyone implicitly subscribes to because we have been taught that all our lives. It satisfies the greedy impulses of corporations (and many proprietary businesses) and is the result of economists harping for nearly a century now on the idea of efficiency.

And it is true that in the perfectly competitive model, efficiency is attained by maximizing profits. Of course the problem is that very little of our economy is perfectly competitive. And who, besides economists (in their naivete) and corporate leaders (in their efforts to propagandize us) really believes that efficiency, a.k.a. profit-maximization, is the almighty social goal?

Nor does it help that there is a large group of people who are so deluded that they believe literally in profits, and in the market as self-correcting, and in the special rights of the wealthy and already privileged. I speak of the Republicans, of course.

It is, in other words, both a cultural and a political problem. But how are we to change this obsession with work at the expense of everything else? I wish I knew.

In my life, the problem as I see it has been with men --- but not because they are slacking off. It is because they tend to have swallowed whole or absorbed more fully the idea that they must provide enough money to their families to support the "American way of life."
Many times, I see men (including my own husband) working their sack off to provide dollars when what the women and children in their lives really want is their time. My husband, although he intellectually understands the kind of life we are trying to build, continues to feel frustrated and inadequate if we don't have "enough" money in the bank. In my experience, women are happier having less money and fewer things but more time and togetherness. Men tend to cling hard onto the idea that they mujst be "good provideers," and that that means making money.

I agree with you, but I also think that we as individuals have let our greed dictate our working hours. The truth is that it's not necessary for two people (or even one person) to work full time jobs to support a family...unless that family has to have all of the newest gadgets, a big fancy house, etc.

My husband and I have probably gone further toward simple living than most people would feel comfortable with, but the rewards are tremendous. Never having to commute and only doing paid work about half to one day a week feels right to us, nevermind that we don't have running water or flush toilets. Who cares? If Americans hadn't been indoctrinated into thinking they needed so much stuff, I'll bet most people would choose a simple life over 40+ hours of drudgery per week.

Well, but Anna, at least in the US, that simple lifestyle would preclude health insurance.

Sometimes I think that we are all just slaves to the health insurance industry....

I'm fortunate enough to work for a university with a reasonably sane view of 'work life balance' which extends to include carer's responsibilities. However, as a single person without children, there's very little understanding from my colleagues that I have sole responsibility for looking after a home and administering my life. If I need to call a plumber, for example, I don't have a traditional 'wife' at home to wait for them, and I don't have the option of working part time and sharing income with a partner. I think that part of the problem is that we tend to think in terms of 'traditional' families, when the reality is that there are a range of different households with different needs. Children are not the only reason to need a work life balance.

Can you please explain to a Brit what is mean by 'sack up dudes'?

The dictionary tells me that to sack up means to make a profit. So, on the assumption that the 'dudes' are male I interpret it as meaning that my partner should get out there and make enough money so I don't have to do it myself and can stay home doing unpaid work!
Or do you mean that men should profit from maternity concessions and ensure they take there paternity leave too?
Your post also makes sense to me if you mean for men in general to get their sackcloth pinnys on and pull their weight in the family and around the home.

I'm confused.

DRK --- I don't think that health insurance is as necessary as most people seem to think it is. I was raised below the poverty line and we never had health insurance. On the rare occasion when someone broke a bone or got strep throat, we went to an emergency room type clinic and paid the couple of hundred bucks, but other than that, we just strived to be very healthy.

There are lots of options, actually. My husband was in the navy for a couple of years right out of high school. That means that now he's eligible to be in the Veterans Affairs medical system, which pays for just about everything until your income reaches something like $35,000.

And you can pay for your own catastrophic health insurance --- mine is less than $100 a month.

Overall, I really don't think it's worth working a job just to get health insurance.

Gotta go with Denis P on this one, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record...CAPITALISM. The reason we all work so much is that we have been convinced, by the folks who stand to make the most money off us, that being "rich" is the way to go...and that the only way to get "rich" is to work too much for those same folks.

And, I do mean "we." Want your man to do more housework? How about demanding a smaller house, fewer toys, a cheaper car...why, if you work at it hard enough, you might even reach the point that the "housework" could be done in an hour, and the two of you could go out and weed the veggies together!

Ok, so there are lots of people who are, to greater or lesser degrees, drinking the conspicuous-consumerism keeping-up-with-the-joneses koolaid. It's easy to see the role capitalism plays.
BUT, they aren't the only people with work-life balance issues.
In the context of science, I think it has to do with "vocation" (as opposed to "job") issues. It's a tremendously demanding course of training, to do work that is endlessly frustrating, and it doesn't pay spectacularly well. So I don't think monetary and material desires, shaped by our bizarre culture, are the driving motivation to spend more time at work for many of us (although the warped cultural values are insidiously persistent).

Partially, I think we do it for social status (not that 'scientists' are *trusted* or *asked on dates*, just that the 'wow you must be smart' type responses is secretly gratifying to nerdyfolk). But mostly, I think we do it for the chance to make a contribution- to build knowledge that will endure past our lifetimes. And there's always the chance- albeit probably a slim one- to do so on a very large scale. As a parent, you can have tremendous influence on a very small number of people. As a doctor, you can treat hundreds or thousands of patients. As a scientist, you can cure diseases and save millions of lives. It's more compelling than fancy cars OR doing dishes. While I very much see the importance of *not* making a lasting (negative) impact on the environment, it's hard to see where having a positive, enduring, impact on humanity fits in.

--- I don't think that health insurance is as necessary as most people seem to think it is.

My husband has two pre-existing conditions, Hepetitis C (from a transfusion in his teens) and recently he had a malignant melanoma removed so health insurance is a necessity for us. Also, if you are self pay you pay a much higher fee than insurance companies reimburse providers.

Sack up, Dudes means "suck it up and deal" in a somewhat crude way (which I personally rather like.) Sorry to have been confusing - it is extremely colloquial ;-).

I think that "just strive to be very healthy" is a weak argument - some people can do so, others cannot. One's personal ability to influence one's health is not insubstantial, but it isn't everything and it is false to imply it is and should be. Moreover, catastrophic health care deals only with single major issue health crises - they offer no help to someone with repeating or chronic conditions that require high cost medical interventions. One such chronic condition and people with only catastrophic care can find themselves relying on charity - which isn't acceptable to everyone.

And sure, capitalism is the problem in large measure - but there are other nations who handle these issues better than the US does, that are also capitalist.

Becca, I agree with you - at the same time, I think the perception that these are the only choices, the only way to have a meaningful career are in part a reflection of our social sense that identity emerges from work. I'm also a little suspicious of the language of "vocation" for professional workers, implying that working class people have "jobs" and educated white collar folkl have "vocations" seems to me a dangerous set of assumptions. Moreover, these are fluid terms - if you stop having fun or have a health crisis that makes it impossible for you to pin your identity on your state as a scientist or whatever, your vocation can become a job - indeed, it is definitely a job when you don't have one ;-).

I think you are on to something about the degree to which people do this to themselves, but I'm a little troubled by the way you frame it.

Mike, I don't accept that the only way to have a viable health care or any other essential service is to require people to work long hours, multiple shifts, with constantly shifting irregular schedules. If we wanted to train more nurses, doctors and other health care professionals badly enough - enough so that shortages were not a risk, we could easily do so, simply by making that education free. There are other societal assumptions that could be changed. Part of the problem (and by no means all of it) is noting that it doesn't have to be this way.


Some of the problems people are describing are US-centric, like having different (no) benefits for part-time jobs. Here in the UK (and I believe in all of Europe), it's illegal for full-time and part-time jobs to have different benefits. Everyone gets (pro-rata) vacation time, life insurance, etc.

And, of course, UK residents have the National Health Service, so fewer worries about paying for medical care (something I'm personally grateful for since I had a cancer operation three years ago this week).

Jobs are the problem, not the solution. How do we get rid of this dependency on jobs? They're obviously unhealthy. Now, work is a different thing -- I *work* on my allotment garden raising food. More work, fewer jobs. Now that's a balance.

By An American Abroad (not verified) on 11 Aug 2010 #permalink

I agree, Sharon, that there are capitalist countries that handle these issues better than the US. But I would argue that they do so to the extent to which they have rejected capitalism as the organizing social principle.

I have to agree with Sarah that this just isn't about families. It's about any sort of "family" situation you live in. I too, am single and childfree. But that doesn't mean that I'm automatically available for overtime/skipped lunches or that I don't have responsibilities outside my job that take priority over my work duties on any given day. Today, I choose to work a job that doesn't require much of me, with less pay so that I can expend my energy doing the things I enjoy the most. Which does NOT include work.

Well, yes and no these are not family issues (and I assume its obvious that every time I say "family" I mean both biological and chosen, right?). I completely agree that simply being single shouldn't get you singled out for automatic overages, and that we do a crappy job of recognizing that single people bear family and domestic responsibilities too. I also agree that domestic work can be harder when you are single, and that we tend to design for traditional families that don't dominate the landscape.

That said, however, I think there's a big difference between the waiting for a plumber scenario that Sarah raises and the realities of caring for an elder, a child or a disabled family member (which plenty of single people do too). The constraints of family obligations are quantitatively different than the constraints of ordinary domestic life, and they do require a different level of accomodation than domestic life alone. That doesn't mean, and shouldn't mean, that single people without major family responsibilities don't get respect for the difficulties they experience in balancing work and life, but I also don't think that we are describing equivalent experiences.


Sharon: Thank you bringing up elder-care. I'm single woman(widowed) and still working while trying to take care of my elderly mother. I sometimes feel like I am walking a tight-rope at work, trying to keep the boss happy and yet attending to the (many) needs of my mom -- while I myself should be thinking about retiring from work. After 40 years at the same high-stress job, I'm burned out. If there was just a way to balance my life it would be great, but caring for an elder is not viewed as essential as caring for a child. I'll probably die at my desk alike my dad did.....

I like how you said that Sharon. I also like that you mention chosen family. Because that is exactly what I'm talking about. I choose to help parent several children. No, I'm not obligated to do so. So when we start talking about obligations and duties as parents or care givers, I kind of don't fit the bill. But my chosen family needs me to do my part. And I see that as an obligation that others don't recognize as valid. Not equivalent experiences, but I do enjoy being part of the conversation.

K8- and that's a real issue - the limited definition we have of family and the limited sense of responsibility we are permitted to have towards one another. A friend of mine from a culture with much stronger family ties got chastized by her school's prinipal for taking her children out of school to go care for an aunt, because an aunt wasn't a "recognize relationship" that justified school absence - even though they hadn't been absent any other time. And if aunts don't count, one's best friend's children who you care for, or one's disabled neighbor that you take to the doctor doubly and triply doesn't count. Moreover, it is people like you who take on voluntary obligations that often make the lives of us folks with kids and elders to care for function - so lord knows, I'd like us all to be allies!

Re definitions of family:

I'm a very hands-on aunt, and am fortunate enough to have a boss who recognises that although I am not a parent, I have a legitimate need to take leave during school vacation time.

Sharon, your comment re 'allies' is really important. If parents are going to argue that 'it takes a village', there needs to be more understanding that single people, (and those without children) ARE part of families, and are carers too.

I've been saying this for years too. I think we work way too much. I had always had hopes of retiring when I was 35. Guess that didn't happen. Seems with the economy it will take the rest of my life to make enough to retire.

I think we have been lied to. It hasn't helped to have women in the workforce. Because now it is required to have a 2 income household. I believe in equality, but why did they want to join the workforce to begin with? My wife stays home with 3 kids and it is a full time job. Maybe harder! But that is looked down on in our society. What a load of crap!