Work, Life, Balance, and Not Having Any of It

There are personal reasons I’m thinking about this today, but they aren’t to be disclosed on the internet. I’m trying nonetheless to write something substantive about what those personal things are making me feel, where by substantive, I mean “something more insightful than ECONOMY SUCKS. HULK SMASH“.

The talk about “work-life balance” often floats around in discussions of women in certain types of (relatively privileged) employment, but I think about it a lot in relation to the big picture of this ongoing economic crisis. I have grown more than a little tired of those analysts and general public commentators who talk about the prospects and conditions facing the younger generation and the no-longer-so-young-at-all generation with reference to the struggles they went through back in their day. They weren’t so shameless as to freeload off their parents, they say. They were willing to work for a living, they did their time in the shitty parts of the company, they did the crappy shifts and they worked through it, and they got their reward. Refusal to recognize that it’s the game that’s changed, not the players, is no longer welcome in my earpace, virtual or otherwise. This is where I want to ask what it means to talk about work/life/balance in a context where none of those things seem available in any kind of adequate supply.

Poor pay, inhumane working conditions, unstable employment, and constantly juggling shifting schedules are, of course, not new for many segments of the population, but they are, more and more, coming to be expected for everyone. This is the outcome of the gutting of the labour movement, as my retired-steelworker father-in-law was reminding me this morning of the time a manager looked scornfully and angrily at him as he asked for certain basic conditions to be met in his workplace and said “You’re the last of the overpaid labourers”. And a decade or so later, the prediction has basically come to pass, though I’d replace a key descriptive term that manager chose to insert there.

I was trying to think about how to phrase a post on this topic that would effectively address what I am trying to say, which is mainly captured in that key descriptive term. What I find so terrifying about the current state of affairs is the way that so many of the general population has signed on to the doctrine of personal responsiblity and to the Protestant-Work-Ethic on steroids that has handed employers the power to expect a totalistic identification with one’s work and a sense that just having a job – no matter how poorly paid and no matter how mentally, emotionally, or spiritually unrewarding – is something for which we should be unwaveringly grateful. And I say this recognizing that my own hope of having a job that is in fact rewarding and stimulating is a hope borne of immense privilege. And then I came across an incredibly appropriate bit of commentary on the academic advice blog, The Professor Is In. The key bit quotes a response to an earlier article where the author talked about the economic reality facing a lot of people who are actually successful in the academic sector, which was met with comment criticizing those who would complain as “whiny and entitled”:

When did middle class become a dirty word? Why are American academics expected to embrace without a murmur the standard of living of other, less wealthy countries? Why is it somehow wrong and ethically tainted to want and expect a modicum of financial security at the end of a decade or so of advanced professional training? Why is the inevitable response to these critiques: find a different job? How have so many intelligent and educated people been so successfully indoctrinated that they’ll accept financial chaos and struggle as the ‘natural’ accompaniment of the academic career? The real financial disequilibrium of the tenure track (partic. in the humanities) is yet another layer of misinformation in the Ph.D. training enterprise, and one that like all the others is defended fiercely (especially in the humanities) so that the cult can remain unchallenged and intact.

And I would say, this isn’t just something that should be said about an academic career, though the level of expertise and education associated with that one means that it exemplifies this story to a degree of absurdity, but still – we are constantly being told that it is “entitled” to expect the kinds of wages on which a family can live, to be able to adapt to changing health conditions or fluctuations in responsibilities outside fo the workplace, or, quite frankly, to be allowed to enjoy our lives. It is a trite truism to suggest that we should be working to live rather than living to work, but even that gets absorbed into a personal advice kind of package, as though it is the fault of the individual that he or she is devoting too much energy into something that is just a job or being greedy in pursuit of just money. That article then quotes another commenter who said something very much along these lines:

When did you decide it was OK to live in a society where any job from janitor to professor did not provide the means to meet the most basic human needs of secure dwelling and the capacity to provide for a family? This is a deeply rooted structural problem perpetuated by this cult of ‘personal responsibility’ which denies the existence of society, and dictates that is your own fault if you failed to read the tea leaves properly when first embarking on your career path.

It’s not just the tea leaves that are the problem, though, as the whole structure is increasingly closing off those options that would provide a secure living. Successful prognostication about this whole thing would seem to suggest that it doesn’t matter what you pick, you’re not only going to be screwed, you’re going to be blamed for it.

I’m moving in the direction of blinding, white-hot rage again, and should probably stop before fully sacrificing coherence.

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2 thoughts on “Work, Life, Balance, and Not Having Any of It”

  1. I like this post, and white hot rage is hard to avoid on this subject. Especially when the “entitlement” critics are members of our own profession, which they weirdly tend to be.

    1. Thanks! I’m a huge fan of your writing and really grateful for the way you bring attention to the ‘big picture’ problems in the academic structure while also doing concrete work to help people succeed within it.

      And I agree, it’s even more upsetting when the commentary comes from within academia, and worse, from the social scientists who talk the talk about structural inequality in their scholarly work. For at least some proportion of those who are successful in the game, there is a sudden switch to thinking that if they figured it out, then so can you, without recognizing how at least some part of it was luck and the system is still screwed.

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