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‘Life-work balance’ is a nonsense term. The idea that I have to segment work and life is based on some archaic lunar-calendar thing.

—NY Times: Housecleaning — Provided by the Boss? In Silicon Valley, Perks Come Home. (via jessbennett)

Completely disagree with this quote, a sentiment I see bandied around a lot by “new digital economy” types.

There is nothing glorious in answering emails at 5am, or 11pm, and working weekends - essentially in having no times or spaces in your life that work can’t occupy. It is in fact psychologically oppressive, exploitative and unhealthy for both the individual and through the wider social norms it sets up.

But that’s what the detractors of “work life balance” seem to advocate. Being able to take 15 minutes on a weekday lunchtime to go on Amazon and buy your mum a birthday present… That is not mitigation.

Americans in particular tend to buy into the ideology that working 80 hour weeks and having only 10 days holiday makes them übermenschen. No.

What can be positive: being able to design your schedule of working hours around the specifics of your life and needs.

But “balance” should never, ever be a dirty word. The alternative is always the dominance of “work” over “life” - “living to work”, a very limited personhood and existence indeed.

The point to remember: however comfortable the trappings, if you’re selling your time and labour power to make a wage then you are of the proletariat; working class. You try and get the best rate for your body, knowledge and efforts - but the profit from your work is accrued by someone else. If you work away your weekends or a space for a personal life - the benefit from that isn’t yours.

Which is to say that work-life balance looks different for the entrepreneur or business owner.

And to acknowledge we live in lean times for labour, and people are scared for their jobs and don’t feel they can say no.


ETA regarding the house-cleaner “perk” specifically:

1. Let’s look at the deal in economic terms. £30 for a cleaner vs. how many more hours expected in the office? Compare this against your hourly rate and you’re probably being had

2. There is a dignity in cleaning your own toilet. An equality. Keeps you humble, keeps you connected to the fact all we really are is an eating, excreting bag of cells. Sure, it’s not fun (though actually it’s really not bad either.) But there’s an importance in doing these basic things that are part of the maintenance and production of the economically labouring body.

There is something wrong about outsourcing everything else so you can be solely the latter.

4 links on work and time

Apposite after a 70-hour working week this week… It’s Sunday afternoon and I still feel exhausted.

1. It’s the 21st century – why are we working so much? by Owen Hatherley
Guardian, 1 July 2012

The right calls for hard work, the left for more jobs. The dream of mechanisation leading to shorter working hours seems forgotten

2. The ‘Busy’ Trap by Tim Kreider
New York Times, 30 June 2012

If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

3. 21 hours: Why a shorter working week can help us all to flourish in the 21st century, by the New Economics Foundation
13 February 2010
via @DRMacIver

The vision
Moving towards much shorter hours of paid work offers a new route out of the multiple crises we face today. Many of us are consuming well beyond our economic means and well beyond the limits of the natural environment, yet in ways that fail to improve our well-being – and meanwhile many others suffer poverty and hunger. Continuing economic growth in high-income countries will make it impossible to achieve urgent carbon reduction targets. Widening inequalities, a failing global economy, critically depleted natural resources and accelerating climate change pose grave threats to the future of human civilisation.

A ‘normal’ working week of 21 hours could help to address a range of urgent, interlinked problems: overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life

4. A Jobs Boom Built on Sweat in an Age of Belt-Tightening by Catherine Rampell
New York Times, 30 June 2012

Personal training requires many of the skills and qualities of the new typical middle-class American job: it is a personal service that cannot be automated or sent offshore, that caters to a wealthier client base and that is increasingly subsidized (in this case, by employers and insurance companies). But as people with such jobs have found, the pay is low. Unlike the clock-in-and-clock-out middle-class jobs of the past, personal service occupations have erratic hours, require entrepreneurial acumen and offer little job security.

“The kind of job where you come in and work 9 to 5, and where someone tells you what to do all day is becoming scarcer and scarcer,” said Erik Brynjolfsson, an economics professor at M.I.T. and co-author of Race Against the Machine, a book about how automation is changing the job market. “The kind of job where you have to hustle and hustle and where you’re not sure whether you will have enough clients next month, where you have less job security, is becoming much more common.”

About time – Examining the case for a shorter working week

CASE and New Economics Foundation public discussion

Date: Wednesday 11 January 2012 
Time: 6-7.30pm
Speakers: Professor Juliet Schor, Professor Lord Skidelsky, Dr Edward Skidelsky
Discussant: Professor Tim Jackson
Chair: Anna Coote

As the economic crisis deepens, this is the moment to consider moving towards much shorter, more flexible paid working hours – sharing out jobs and unpaid time more fairly across the population. The new economics foundation (nef) set out the case in its report 21 Hours: Why a shorter working week can help us all to flourish in the 21st century.

Now, in partnership with CASE (Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion) at the London School of Economics, this event brings together a panel of experts to examine the social, environmental and economic implications. They will consider how far a shorter working week can help to address a range of urgent social, economic and environmental problems: unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being and entrenched inequalities.

Solving part-time work is one of the big socio-economic challenges for the next decade. It’s something needed by several demographics:

  1. The baby boomer bulge coming up to retirement, but not financially able to support 30 years of leisure off 35-40 years of work.
  2. Young people wanting to get an education, but potentially increasingly unwilling to commit to 3 years of full-time residential study at the age of 18 to rack up £60,000 of debt / future tax liability. They need better work-study options, not only Apprenticeships which are far too often being used as ways for employers to escape the minimum wage
  3. Solving the work/kids balance is essential for many countries to avoid the aging population problem above. (It’s not just Italy worst affected, but actually South Korea, most of Eastern Europe, Japan and Germany too [source].)
    You could call this the “last challenge of feminism”, in that childrearing is the point where income inequality kicks in (women in their 20s are actually earning 3.6% more than men, commensurate with greater levels of education [source].) But that’d be a very white middle-class feminism (aka blinkered to others’ challenges).
    I’m more inclined to consider it one of the first challenges of post-feminism, if we take post-feminism not to mean not the backlash (that’s anti-feminism) but something more constructive where we “generalise the insurrection” such that what were once seen as “women’s issues” are recognised as struggles men too want to fight. Research shows that fathers want more involvement with bringing up their children [source] - in about the last 10 years, going part-time after having kids has really become much less gendered behaviour.
    Gaby Hinsliff’s new book Half a Wife talks about the need for households with children to find 2 days a week for “wifework” (itself another book by Susan Maushart, worth reading).

There’s also another set of ideas worth referring to around the increasing automation of work and the challenges of maintaining full employment under these circumstances. A few quick links:

  • Job-devouring technology confronts US workers [Financial Times]
  • Will robots take our jobs? Who cares? [Tim Worstall, Forbes]
  • The Next Economic Revolution [Alex Planes, Motley Fool]. One of the most fascinating and important articles I’ve read recently, it argues, "our economy — and much of our market prices — is built on consumption, and a world run by machines is one that won’t support the same levels of consumption if those displaced have no easy way back into the workforce." The profits from increasing labour efficiency can’t necessarily outrun the losses from permanently-high unemployment killing consumer demand.

The emerging (middle-class) ideal may be the four-day work-week, and the employers who do best at making this possible may well prosper by being the ones who hold on to talent. Unexpectedly enough, it is in fact the companies known for the longest working hours that are making strides to introduce it - law and consulting firms are really pushing flexible working as they recognise (are best-placed to measure?) the impact of losing experienced women at 35. They’re also keen to reduce their fixed costs from real estate, and allowing working from home + hotdesking can dramatically reduce the office square-footage required.

But that’s still an upper-middle class elite. The real challenge is how to introduce a shorter work-week for lower-middle and working class jobs that retain the benefits of employment (pension; healthcare in the US) and don’t become the zero-hour flexi-contracts of the "precariat"….