Work/Life: Only for the Wealthy?

Om Tuesday I had lunch with some big thinkers: Cali Yost, CV Harquail, Leanne Chase, Ellen Galinsky, Judy Martin, Chrysula Winegar, Morra Aarons-Mele and Kami Lewis Levin.  Over the next few days I’m going to write about some of our discussions.  Today’s question: how relevant are work/life issues to the working poor?  Can the work/life discussion go beyond the privileged few who are able to kiss the corporate world good-bye for more appealing options?

Some at our table suggested that work/life was inherently an issue for the upper middle class and wealthy; working class people need more work, not less, and are eager to gain income through additional hours on the job.  Furthermore, only people who have the leverage and resources to give up the benefits of corporate America — health insurance, life insurance, retirement benefits — can really aspire to making major shifts in work/life.

I think this is a valid point if you think that work/life strategies are mostly about  working fewer hours.  But I would characterize work/life as a much broader set of issues, including gender equity, health, childcare and other family policies that support workers’ ability to pursue satisfying career and home lives without significantly compromising either.  If we contextualize work/life in this way, then it has even greater relevance for working and middle class families than those with greater resources.

It reminded me that I’ve felt for a long time that we need to reframe this conversation.  Work/life doesn’t mean reduced hours for all employees.  I want to be a chief executive, and I don’t expect to do that by reducing the time I spend at work.  But that doesn’t mean that work/life isn’t important to me; on the contrary, I still want the flexibility to pick up my child from school some days, or take an elderly parent to the doctor.  I am keen to see more high-quality childcare options at or near  my workplace so that I can see my child at lunchtime.  I want to be able to pump milk or breastfeed at my office.  And I don’t want to face discrimination because I have children, when the work I do is comparable to or better than my peers.  These are all work/life issues, and yet they are dwarfed by the perception that work/life is simply about working less.

But what about those who don’t want to be a CEO?  Any way we slice it, reduction in hours means a reduction in income.  Enabling families to spend more time together only at the expense of long-term financial security is not a fair choice.  Not to mention that workers who go “part-time” often end up working as many hours as their full-time counterparts, but with a lower salary, no health care, and reduced benefits.

Some of the people around the table felt that greater government legislation was in order to make work/life feasible.  I agree — but it’s neither practical nor good economics to legislate reduction in hours or flexible scheduling.  Companies need to have the freedom to determine what staffing structures work best independent of government oversight.

Instead, our government’s role should be to provide basic social services that allow both business and individuals to make staffing choices without worrying that workers on a reduced or alternative schedule might be slapped with a $19,000 hospital bill because they need an appendectomy.  (This story really did appear in The Wall Street Journal, but The Journal charges for archived content, so I’m linking to a free, but strange-looking version.)

It is true that reducing hours is a part of the work/life equation for some, but the reality is that for many of us — whether because of economic necessity or choice — limiting time at work and income is undesirable.  Do those of us who still work a 40 or 50 or 60 hour week have less stake in work/life?  I think we have even more.

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Filed under Politics, Work

7 responses to “Work/Life: Only for the Wealthy?

  1. Yes, I don’t think the issue is how to work fewer hours. It’s about how to schedule more efficiently. I can work 40 hours a week, but why do those 40 hours need to occur from M-F and from 9-5? And, providing people with “outside the box” scheduling options could potentially cut childcare costs significantly, a side effect of which might be more balanced, gender neutral parenting.

    As far as the class discussion goes, I think it was Judy Martin who noted that an essential component of changing the way people (read: executives) think about this work/life tug of war is to…uh…prey on their humanity, to put it bluntly. People have lives and families and interests. Employees should not be expected to forfeit those things. And as so many studies have proven, happy employees are productive employees.

  2. I’m glad to see this discussion that work/life balance doesn’t necessarily mean working less (or working part-time in general). If you work 40, 50 or even 60 hours a week, there is still plenty of time for other things, but it helps tremendously if you can control when those 60 hours happen. There is a big difference between working, say, 7:30am-5:30pm and then 8:30-10:30pm, compared with working from 8am-8pm every day, which leaves very little time to spend with your kids. Likewise, working 50 hours a week from home feels very different from working 50 hours a week in an office. The former is probably more productive, but feels like you’re working a lot less!

  3. Many thanks for the inspiration and conversation starter. Here is my response on Huffington Post- I’ve linked back to you.

  4. Great phrase that you used: “reducing hours is a part of the work/life equation”. Each individual has a personal equation and it changes over time from day to day as well as year to year.

    I see some of the major parameters in the equations as:
    – having a job vs. investing in a career
    – flexible hours
    – work-at-home
    – work vs. stay-at-home
    – childcare
    – eldercare
    (In no particular order).

    Some working poor might be forced to find a job and leverage family for childcare. Someone in a different financial state can focus on reduced hours or perhaps a job-share arrangement. But in all cases, companies (and government) should be enablers.

    It all starts with awareness of the bigger picture and increased sensitivity to all these issues.

  5. Agree it is not always or just about working less. But about working differently and allowing for variety among individuals and jobs. Research proves what many of us experience, if we have more autonomy about when and where to work, we can work more hours and still feel more satisfied with our work+life fit. Instead of focusing on the “work less” piece, I think it’s about allowing for different sizes and shapes of jobs and getting away from “one size fits all.” It’s the “one size fits all” approach that causes resentment too. The person doing 50-60 hrs resents the colleague who’s doing 35-40 because of family responsibilities. But that same colleague has no option to request an alternative schedule and proportional pay.

    Also agree that work+life fit has to be defined in ways that include all income levels. “Fit” includes the ability to provide for your family, and too many employees these days are being forced into part-time jobs that don’t pay the bills and don’t provide health insurance. We are a nation of people who are either underemployed or overemployed, with little in the middle. That’s not work+life fit for anyone.

  6. Pingback: Women and BigLaw: Yes, Virginia, it is Sexism. « The Mama Bee

  7. Kendra

    I don’t think I agree with the item in the post about working fewer hours. What about non work obligations too? Childcare, volunteer work and committees, saying ‘yes’ to things we really want to say ‘no’ to. There’s a chapter called “Creating Boundaries” in a new book by Julie Cohen that speaks to the fact that some of this is on us, not just the workplace.

    Though I do agree with one of the respondents who said it isn’t as much about the hours of work as the way we work. Flexibility to work from home to free up commuting time, being able to work the hours we are more productive or help avoid sitting in traffic if we must commute.

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