The century of total work

I have, by almost any standard, a remarkably flexible and generous job: the taxpayers of Wisconsin indulge me, for this year at least, to sit at my desk and to read and write what interests me. (They do not indulge me very much—but I am perfectly content with peanut butter sandwiches most days for lunch.) Meanwhile, I share a home with another person whose job does not devour her—and we do not have any children. Both of us have at least a few extravagant hours every day where we are not earning money and not preventing a tiny human from dying on our watch.

But I still raise a fist of solidarity in the air for Anne-Marie Slaughter’s indictment of what the American workplace has done for families. With deserved fury, Slaughter shows how “work-life balance” has become an impossible paradox for the vast majority of American workers, who increasingly find that the eight-hour day is a dwindling fantasy. If the twentieth century was the century of total war, the twenty-first is turning out to be the century of total work, with always-on devices extending our responsibilities throughought the clock’s full sweep, precarioius jobs leaving us in constant fear of dismissal, and, most importantly, a viciously competitive winner-take-all form of wealth distribution forcing everyone into a desperate struggle to avoid the yawning lower class.

So, in spite of the fact that we live in the richest society ever to exist on the face of the earth, many peopel feel that work has crowded out everything else in life. Slaughter identifies this is primarily a problem of childcare, and she suggests a suite of policy interventions that could reconcile careers with childraising. Surely this makes sense: raising children is amongst the most basic acts of our lives that ought to be kept at arm’s length from the pursuit of profit, and it continues to be mothers who face the most unfair tradeoffs between their professional and personal responsibilities. Writes Slaughter:

If we really valued care, we would not regard time out for caregiving — for your children, parents, spouse, sibling or any other member of your extended or constructed family — as a black hole on a résumé.

But why stop at caring for family members? There are a thousand and one things which are important to a well-lived life—as an individual and as a member of a community—which suffer mightily when we propitiate our lives to a career. To the care of our family we might append care of those who do not have the fortune of being related to us: neighbors, the less-unfortunate, or prisoners. And there are things beyond people that deserve our care as well: a clean watershed or a well-tended bed of flowers. Beyond this, there are the manifold acts which make us care about the world, and about being alive: laughing with friends, listening to music, strolling on a fine day.

All of these things—as well as childrearing—are “black holes on a résumé.” The problem is that we no longer have any way of measuring ourselves other than the lengths of our résumés. For the rich, this is a kind of garish self-immolation, a ridiculous performance of stress and contortion meant to show that one is surrounded with the glow of an ephemeral “success.” For the poor, it is the crushing force of economic necessity which reduces life to livelihood.

This is, of course, folly: you may just as well bury yourself with coins on your eyes for the ferryman’s ticket as bury yourself with a twenty-page résumé stapled to your lifeless hand. But it is not a folly that we can reject alone. So long as the ideal of competition forms the mainspring of our social organization, we will never be able to turn away from this sickly version of the self. Even Slaughter falls back on an appeal to success: “though individual Americans might win out in our current system, America as a whole will never be as competitive as it ought to be.” Why “competitive”—why not “decent” or “humane,” or just plain “good”?