Thursday, 27 November 2008

Re-imagining work - part 1

Cross posted

My mother gave up her thesis when my brother and I were born. She found she just couldn't do it. She never got back to it.
Fellow PhD student

A few years after I became a mother, I realised that I don't have a career any more. I just have a job.
Senior HR professional

That break we took in Fiji was so good. It have me a chance to reconnect with my children again.
Senior public servant

People want me to come and talk about work life balance because they think I have solved it. But I haven't. All that has happened is that my husband has taken on the stay-at-home role.
Senior public servant

I really didn't get a chance to do anything until my children were in their teens, and by then it was almost too late. I'm glad I had my children early, even though it was hard going at the time.
School principal

I haven't been able to do any research since my children were born, even though my husband is the person who is working a part time job.
Senior academic

I don't think I'm looking for a career anymore. Interesting work with interesting people will do.
Senior public servant

I think I might see if I can go part time in a few years, down to 80%. I know I will still have to work full time, but at least I won't have to work weekends too.
Young academic

These are all conversations I have had, over the past few years. I can't guarantee that the words are strictly accurate, but they are more-or-less right. I've certainly remembered the spirit of what people have said to me, because the particular sentiments have stuck in my mind. I can remember exactly who it was who said each of those things: there's a real name of a real live woman to go with each of those quotes.


I've been engaged in an on-going conversation about work-life balance, with so many people. I virtually always talk to mothers in paid employment about their childcare arrangements, trying to work out what it is that makes paid work viable for them. Some of them have nannies, even when their children are all at school, but then, they feel that they don't really know their children at all. Others have pre-schoolers, so although they regret the lost hours, they haven't yet struck the after-school and school holiday juggle, which is another whole nightmare. Others have found that if they want to parent their children, then they must abandon their careers, or at least, put them on hold. Some women work a shortened year, but not as short as would suit me.

My own chequered employment career is testament to an on-going struggle with work-life balance. I've worked in business, in the academy, and in the public service, and nowhere have I been able to find balance. Business bored me, at least at the low level I was working at. The academy was poisonous, for reasons, some to do with me, some to do with the particular institution at the particular time I was working there, some to do with the nature of academic work in general, some to do with my discipline. The public service was rather better, at least in my unit, where my single, childless, male boss (go figure!) made a big effort to create an environment where parents could work part time, and flexibly. Nevertheless, that is the environment where I heard one woman talking about reconnecting with her kids, and where Mr Strange Land and I became convinced that we needed a wife. The fact is, I have been able to find no solution to the problem of ensuring that my children are cared for, and loved, and parented, and nurturing my own career, and me. If I pursue a career, my children suffer; if I leave paid employment, then not only do I go quietly mad ('tho Mr Strange Land likes to point out that it ain't so quiet), but in the longer term, I may lose out, and so too may our daughters.

Of all the childcare/parenting/working possibilities, the shortened year is the one that would work best for me. I'm starting to think that my ideal job (NB: job, not career), is 20 hours per week, in school term time. But that means there's no management track for me. (And yes, I really would like to run something, some day.)

Even then, the shortened year only works for some people because other people continue to work full time. Someone is there to answer the phones, clear the e-mail, clean the kitchens, resupply the photocopier, talk to clients, just do what needs to be done to keep the organisation ticking over. The fact is that our societies and our work structures are organised around 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, and the shortened week is an exception to that. As long as we continue to organise work around that 9 to 5 structure, some people will have to work far longer than they want in order to make flexi-hours possible for the rest of us.

I see no solutions other than a total re-imagining of the way we work.

More to come, in a few days - it's taking me a while to pull my thoughts on this into coherent form.


Anna S said...

Recently I attempted paid employment after four years at home with one, then two little boys.

(I have taken on paid contract work during this time, but it has been sporadic, and done from home.)

Anyway, I was only doing 20 hours a week, but the household went down hill fast. We are a blended family with two teenagers here 3 nights a week, and managing the teens seemed to be the first thing I dropped. They need nourishing meals, clean clothes, change for buses etc. I only realised how much of this I was doing when I stopped doing it. The result was increased tension in the house, especially between my husband and I.

Also, while my older boy loved creche, the little one cried all day there, it was an awful exercise in overwhelming guilt.

But working in an office was fantastic! So many interesting people, so few toileting-related interruptions, hardly any fights about toys to put out!

Also, I was having to get the boys in the car by 7am to get them to creche and me to work on time, this was all done on adrenalin, and unsustainable.

Anyway, I'm back being the housewife for now, but I'm trying for another 20 hour a week job, to start after summer, and probably with a part-time nanny getting most of my earnings.

This way the children can be in their home environment, and keep going to their Playcentre with all their friends.

Ideally my husband would work less hours, and we could share the childcare. Only a few seem to manage this in NZ, although a friend assures me this is the norm in Holland. This would take a fundamental shift in the way we work here to be possible, but something worth exploring.

Azlemed said...

I have struggled to work out what works for us... I tried working between the first two, but when number three came along the financial price became rediculous... the cost of childcare and petrol etc was more than I would have earned.

It has taken time but I am now enjoying being a mum at home with my kids.. I find it difficult but that is often because I have wanted everything and nearly lost everything that mattered.

there is no easy way to do this... if you work you are criticised, if you are at home you are asked when are you going back to work... we just cant win with the current societal demands that we as women be everything, mum, worker, wife etc... and good at all of them too...

Anonymous said...

Excellent post Deborah. "Re-imagining work" is a good way of putting it.

The work/life balance is tilted heavily towards work, life comes second. Im a very firm believer in the idea that I was born to live, not born to work, as it seems to be the way in capitalism.

Its funny, I have a friend who works around 60 hours a week and earns around 20K more than me, he has a house, car, and a secure career future, not bad for mid 20s. This friend is always pitching to me the idea of working more, taking on more responsiblity, then I could have more money etc. But with all these things comes increased stress, more health problems and less time spent doing the things I find satisfying.

While Im not a parent I imagine that with the increased work demands placed on parents these days the kids are the ones suffering.

It would be nice to see a 30 hour working week, 3 hours in the morning, 3 hours in the afternoon, every working day. I can hear the cries of "lost productivity" already from the business community... sad.

Anna said...

I simply find work/life balance impossible. Even when we get it right in terms of hours (enough available to do all the necessary work) I find it emotionally difficult - I'm a mum, and I don't like being away from my kids all week. I'd love for both my partner and I to go part-time, but then you get into all the pitfalls of part-time work - dead end jobs, or trying to cram a fulltime job into fewer hours.

Anna S, completely hear you about the stress. Even when the 'second' partner is only doing a few hours, the stress mounts hugely. Small things become a huge issue - getting the washing out, then getting it in again before the feeble Dunedin sun sets and it gets wet again...

Make Tea Not War said...

We are both working part time at the moment. I think it works quite well for us, for now. I agree there are pitfalls. I'm especially conscious of the working full time for a part time wage one. On the other hand I have found that working part time has sometimes made it possible for me to say no to things I don't want to do- and able to concentrate on more ultimately career enhancing things I do want to do. I finished my PhD when my daughter was 3 but did not go to many meetings during those early years.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I don't have kids but we have always found it hard to enjoy our time together when we are both working, we have often talked about me staying home or working part-time so that at least one of us isn't all stressed out and can support the other one. It would be me because even though I earn more than my husband but the understanding seems to be that my job is less important because he is the "earner" in our household.

Anonymous said...

One thing I have noticed of late is increasing numbers of small businesses that work part time. I just bought a water tank off "Graham and Tony", and they have one work cellphone that goes to whoever is working on the day and have a 1300 number ditto. I get the impression that they juggle based on who wants to work rather than working fixed days. Other random companies that I've dealt with of late are the same.

I think part of it is the outsourcing/ contracting fad that means lots of work that used to be done by employees is now done by "independent contractors" who used to be employees but are now one person companies. So naturally they work whenever they can and their hours are quite random, and the outsourcing company accepts that as they price they pay for outsourcing. The price the contractor pays is ignored, of course.

But for some people they have managed to remove some or all of that price by combining with one or two others in the same position so that they work more regular hours.

Personally, I work 6-12 month contracts full time for quite good money then have breaks (like now) for a few months until I run out of money and need to work again. Luckily for me it's a matter of "the more I work the sooner I can retire" rather than struggling to make ends meet. Flip side is that I do live quite economically so I'm not trying to pay off my McMansion while paying a car lease and 27 hire purchase agreements.


Anna said...

Interesting point, Moz. The whole work flexibility thing is such a double-edged sword. On one hand, you need it to be able to work and raise a family. On the other, it can mean changing shifts, irregular paypackets, having to turn up to work without adequate notice, etc. I guess it comes down to which party is seeking flexibility, and why.

I've done contract work too, and found it worked quite well, but my income was an adjunct to my partner's permanent job. It would be tricky to run a family around contract work.

Andrew said...

The major problem I see here is there being no real societal will towards changing our work structures. Whether we like it or not we employ a capitalist economic system. Under that system employers obviously don't care who's working and when: they just want to maximise profit. Thus if large numbers of women - and some men; myself included - lose out so be it. In other words we have to fit the system; not vice versa.

I know this probably sounds very negative: It is. So Deborah you're right, we do need to reimagine work. It's just that that reimagining would necessarily involve a complete overhaul of our means of production, distribution, and exchange: something which suits me down to the ground incidentally.

On a personal level, I'm currently a fulltime stay-at-home parent to a two-year-old and a seven-year-old. I would like to get back into the workforce during school hours. I think we could just about manage to keep an orderly house - I've got some good systems in place now - but just finding a job that fits my schedule seems pretty difficult. The main stumbling block would seem to be the need to be free during school holidays. We moved to a new location in July, and have no family to help out. I'm reluctant to put my daughter into holiday programmes at this early stage, as she's yet to fully settle yet herself. It's a real dilemma. I also frequently get comments from people expressing surprise that I'm at home. Once, at The Warehouse, the friendly checkout operator remarked that I was on babysitting duty that day, to which I replied yes and every other day as well. It took her a confused moment to register what I meant. Is it still that unusual for guys to want to be with their kids? Observationally it seems to me that if there is still a fairly widespread expectation that women will stay at home, then the corollary to that is that men will be in the formal economy.