Monday, 1 December 2008

Re-imagining work - part 2

Cross posted
Part 1

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 pelnty 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.


The ex-expat said...

Return of the King - Muster of Rohan

Julie said...

This is what I struggle with about my own situation - that I feel that our solution, which is currently that I work and my partner stays home, is just a band-aid and doesn't really reflect a shift in our society at all.

One of the things that really bugs me about life at the moment is that it simply isn't realistic for a family to get by on the average wage, unless there are two people earning an average wage each. I was astounded that during all the publicity of Nia Glassie's murder no one seemed to ask what seemed to me a very obvious question - why did her mother have to work 16 hours a day 6 days a week?

I know that for some the need for a higher income is driven by the wants that people have now that used to be considered luxuries - two cars, several computers, ipods etc. But in my family we've never really been like that, amassing that stuff, and still we are struggling at the moment on one wage that is significantly more than the average wage.

So for me one of the main things that a different way of working must do is provide an adequate income for everyone; not subsistence level, but enough to live well.