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.
- A new report from the Center for American Progress talks about “The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict: the Poor, the Professionals and the Missing Middle.”
- From the Sloan Work and Family Research Network: “Flexible Work Arrangements: Improving Job Quality and Workforce Stability for Low-Wage Workers and their Employers.“
- Cali Yost writes about different work/life strategies in Fast Company — important insight: “Sometimes finding a new fit involves big changes, and oftentimes small adjustments are enough.”