Re-imagining work – part 2

Cross posted
Part 1

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The way is shut, his voice said. It was made by those who are Dead, and the Dead keep it, until the time comes. The way is shut.*

That’s how I feel about re-imagining work. I run up against a blank wall, and the way is shut. Perhaps I’m just too trapped in that 9 to 5 mentality. The best I can do is to turn to the imaginations of sci-fi, and especially, to Ursula Le Guin.

In particular, I turn to her novel, The Dispossessed, about which I have written before. In Le Guin’s utopian anarchic society, people work for about six hours a day. The hero, Shevek, becomes ill when he starts working extraordinarily long, eight hour days.

Because all goods are shared communally, there’s no point in working harder, or longer, to get greater rewards. Each person is fed and clothed and housed as needed, in egalitarian fashion. There are communal dining rooms, so people who work their six hours or so at a job do not need to turn around and do more work when they get home. Children are cared for in community nurseries, where the childcare workers earn just the same wages as everyone else (food and clothing and lodging and so on). The scut work is done by everyone, on their tenth-day rotation, when they take a break from their ordinary work, and take out the rubbish or sweep the communal floors or clean the sewage system instead.

The downsides of this utopia: children can be ‘abandoned’ by their parents; left in the community nurseries to make their own way, although they will be well cared for. And as ever, some people break the rules. Shevek is shocked to find some people who are “propertarian”, owning actual property, and coveting other people’s possessions (a rug, an artwork, a room in the community house).

So let’s transfer this to modern work.

What say everyone works just six hours a day, and some of those work hours must be devoted to community work, the work that no one really wants to do. What say parents can be confident that their children are being lovingly cared for, and that when their work day is done, then that’s it. No more second shifts, because the meals have been prepared, the housework done, by members of the community who choose to do that work, or by people doing their 10th day work.

The trouble is, this is a classic collective action problem, maybe even a tragedy of the commons, where the “commons” is a reasonable working day. If one individual can gain greater rewards (prestige, more possessions) by working just a little bit longer, then she can break the tacit restraint, and stay on late, or get in early, and get the extra work done. With the extra work comes rewards, promotions, greater standing, whatever. Then another individual might choose to work longer, and then another and another. Pretty soon, in order to get those rewards, most people end up working longer, and anyone who wants to work a bit less is left behind.

(Long ago, when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Otago, the students trying to get into medical school used to suggest that they should form a pact whereby no one would do any study, and they would all just have a good time doing what students do. Come the end of the year, they would all sit their exams, and their results would all fall into much the same order as would have been the case had they all worked hard all year. So the top 150 or 200 students would still get into medical school, and they would all have had a fantastic year. Alas, they knew that some miserable person would break the pact, and study, and that meant that all of them had to work hard, all year.)

Even if all of us agree to work less, I can’t see that the agreement will last. As a matter of fact, it hasn’t. Every October, in both Australia and New Zealand, we have a Labour Day holiday, which is supposed to mark the advent of the 40-hour work week. 40 hours was thought to be a reasonable time to work, leaving enough hours in the day to spend with your partner and children, allowing you leisure in the weekends, and yet giving you enough time to earn a decent wage. Even then, the 40-hour-week worker depended on having someone else to run their home and look after their children.

I genuinely can’t see a way through this problem of balancing work and life. Some people have suggested that it’s only 10 or so years out of my working life, and that I have plenty of time to race ahead doing worthwhile work when the children are grown. However I expect it will take more than 10 years; my experience so far is that my children need me more as they get older, and even if they don’t need me to take part directly in what they are doing, they need me, or their dad, around, as a solid, tangible, centre to their home lives. I recall this getting worse (or better!) with teenage years, when on nine days out of ten, a teenager doesn’t really care if Mum or Dad is there or not, but on that tenth day, they need time and talk, for whatever reason. And no matter what their emotional needs, younger teenagers (say 15 and under) really do need to be supervised, most of the time, even if just in an “I can hear what you’re doing” fashion, or you get the meth-lab in the backyard problem. So, given that I have three children, and there’s a three year gap between Miss Ten and the Misses Seven, and that I think that the girls will need on-going parental presence in their day-to-day lives until they are about 15, then that’s 18 years where Mr Strange Land and I have to allow someone’s career to be back-burnered, or where we have to take turns with stepping out of the full time work force for a time, with the consequent hit on our incomes and our retirement savings and all of that.

And it’s not just the money. There’s a whole social dimension to work and career that suffers when you aren’t in paid employment. I’ll write about that next. In the meantime, have you noticed that that I have proposed a social solution, via Ursula Le Guin’s work, but I think that it will be scuppered by individuals, and that the solutions that my women friends have come up with are individual solutions, for what seems to me to be a systemic problem. But… for a more cheerful look at the possibility of a systemic solution, try Helen’s excellent post about the shortened work year, which I have linked to a couple of times already.

More to come, in a day or two….

*Honour and glory, and the admiration of your peers, if you can identify where this quote comes from.

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11 responses to “Re-imagining work – part 2

  1. the quote is lord of the rings isn’t it? the ghoul talking to aragon in the caverns behind helms deep?

    but in other matters, did you know that the “tragedy of the commons” never occurred. the author who penned the concept was working with a concept only, and never provided an instance of a commons being over-exploited by an individual…

    in other words, he made it up!

    the stinker.

  2. PS. link to one reputation of harding.

  3. Do you think you could ignore your kids for the next coupla weeks and come up with an answer by Christmas? So many parents (and children who care for their parents, and friends who care for neighbours, etc) would be very appreciative.

    The only person I know well who has done the shorter year wasn’t a parent. She’s my childfree aunt. She wanted to make sure she had time to do her share of driving her parents to appointments when they were frail, without missing entirely the opportunity to have real holidays away with her husband. I know she did it for a few years, not sure if she continued with it after my grandparents died.

  4. I’m not against rewriting society’s rules according to LeGuin, so long as we choose which novel veeeery carefully… But in the meantime, I wonder to what extent people are organised behind this cause. Is there a union or other workers’ organisation in the world that is pressuring employers and government specifically to increase the flexibility of hours and arrengements for parents? The question is not rhetorical. More work from home arrangements, more flexible shifts should be attainable in many professions. There are some which will always be constrained in terms of working hours – teachers, to name one – but plenty others where plenty more allowances could be made.

    It’s an interesting issue too in that it seems to me to cut across classes. Low-paying jobs are sometimes at least flexible (in my own experience I did bank data entering at night and I was a uni librarian and a hospital worker in the most imaginative combinations of shifts – whilst always being paid close to the minimum wage), whereas some high paying ones often aren’t. So there could be scope for an organisation lobbying for improvements across the board.

  5. My experience is that another cause of the long- hours culture is the tacit and not-so-tacit message that you’re letting the side down if you opt out.

    I would happily opt out of advancement, honours, glories, promotion etc. as long as I had enough to live on and a modicum of job-satisfaction, but I’d feel really guilty about not pulling my weight in an organisation that often seems very hard-pressed to get everything done with the available personnel and resources.

    So maybe part of the problem is systemic: a product of all sorts of micro-decisions about the allocation of economic resources that create a kind of Frankenstein that no-one ever intended, but no-one seems able to know what to do with either.

  6. The only person I know well who has done the shorter year wasn’t a parent. She’s my childfree aunt. She wanted to make sure she had time to do her share of driving her parents to appointments when they were frail, without missing entirely the opportunity to have real holidays away with her husband. I know she did it for a few years, not sure if she continued with it after my grandparents died.

    That’s right. A lot of childfree people beat their breasts and wail “but we’ll be left doing all the work.” Who said? why can’t they opt for a shorter working year too, taking time off at different times to the parents (no sane childfree person would prefer to go on holidays or get around the city in school holidays, I’m thinking.)

    Giovanni, I’m thinking of your post but I’m at work, on lunch (heh.) Sometime when I’ve got time to be detailed – Nick, one thing: not “letting the side down” and being the perfect Company person was a mindset developed by males who had wives at home to take care of all the… well, everything else, really. I’m not advocating being irresponsible, but cui bono? and can’t we have a hundred people employed on fewer hours instead of say, sixty employed on punishing hours (and others on the dole?).

    So many issues to address, so little time, I’m aware I hardly scratch the surfacr 😉

  7. The disincentive for employers is that each employee has entitlements – super, holidays, sick leave, long service, etc – plus other stuff like insurance and desk space that cost (or potentially cost) money. If you employ two part timers instead of one full timer it doesn’t necessarily cost the same.

    When my grandfather was at work (the same one whose daughter took a shorter year to care for him) he never worked over time. Ever. He worked for the navy right through the war, and made sure ships were fully stocked with all the essentials, and he didn’t work past 5pm. They employed enough people so that everyone could work effectively and get a good night’s sleep.

    But we had a policy of full employment once upon a time, and we don’t now. Now we have a policy of pretending lots of the unemployed people are not unemployed.

  8. Nick, one thing: not “letting the side down” and being the perfect Company person was a mindset developed by males who had wives at home to take care of all the… well, everything else, really

    That could well be, but I’m working in a university, and the pressure’s real. If I don’t produce the appropriate quantity and quality of research (along with everything else) then the department gets less money from the government, already thin resources are even more thinly stretched, and so the cycle continues.

    I’m single, and I don’t know how my partnered-up, childrened-up colleagues manage, to be honest with you.

  9. I’ve been thinking lately that at least for white collar jobs (which are an increasing part of the economy) some return to an hourly pay rate would make a huge difference.

    As an employer, if I employ a full timer, I know that I’ve got them for five days – some of which will be more than 8 hours (none will be less). Officially a 40 hour week – unofficially up to 50. But a part timer who wants school hours will expect to be paid proportionately to the 40 hour week – so five five hour days would be 62.5% of a full time, job even though in reality it is only 50%. And its a pain because most jobs these days involve interaction with people, which is much harder to organise if one of them isn’t always there.

    So if we all actually got paid for the hours we worked, the culture would be quite different.

  10. Great discussion and post.

  11. That could well be, but I’m working in a university, and the pressure’s real. If I don’t produce the appropriate quantity and quality of research (along with everything else) then the department gets less money from the government, already thin resources are even more thinly stretched, and so the cycle continues.

    Yes, but you are working full time, correct? As a parent, you always have that option, all you need to do is get a nanny and/or place your child in care for much of the day – and I’m not judging that decision, far from it. But if you do in fact want to spend more time with your children beyond the statutory period after the birth, the question is whether work can be reorganised in order for either or both parents to reduce or suspend work at different points in time while their kids are young, without their careers being completely frozen or going backwards as a result. I think it would take a pretty broad change in attitudes for that to enter the realm of the possible, but it ought to be achievable. Just one more thing where people need to organise.