Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Willing Slaves, Pretending to Have it All

I was recently asked to weigh in on the topic of "women having it all."

What, of course, is triggering the increased interest we're seeing on the topic of "work-life balance" (don't get me started) is Sarah Palin's entry into the political race and her purposeful political branding as a "hockey mom" with five kidlings, a hubster and a full-time job.

I have to admit: I had to corral my gag reflex.

I'm often asked, as a speaker, to address this issue. So here's a little of the less "cleaned-up" version of my thinking on the topic.

We are--men and women both--on a treadmill in the workplace, trying to jam more into the average day than our forebears crammed into the average week. We’re information glutted with more raw data in the Sunday New York Times than was accessible in the entire lifetime of a person living just a hundred years ago. On the home front, the advances in technology that were supposed to shave significant time off our weekly chores have us now doing more housework than our great (and sometimes great-great) grandmothers. Voicemail, PDA’s, email and the like have allows work to leave a greater and greater footprint on our personal time.

And things--important things--are dropping out.

I heard from one friend--a man with a demanding job (really, a job he allowed to become demanding) answered his email on his PDA that one last time and his lady love...a truly spectacular and gentle human being, spiked the offending tech. Two points! She'd had enough of being a WINO ("wife in name only"). He was Missing in Action.

How We Got Here
In the late 18th and throughout the 19th, the aim of industrialization was to shift the largely agrarian workforce into wage laborers. Expanding on the need to produce which stemmed, in part from the Protestant work ethic (combined with the notion of Salvation by Works), this great project combined fear of God with fear of want. Wages were kept purposely low to ensure that workers returned the next day.

A class of Willing Slaves was created.

During the next several decades, workers began to revolt over long hours, dangerous working conditions and child labor. Days shrank to 10 hours and then 8, children as young as six were prohibited from work, locked doors (to prevent those slacking workers from hieing-off) were unlocked. Trade unions were formed to negotiate for better pay, benefits and working conditions and employment laws were passed to eliminate—at least in the sphere of public policy—the codified ill-treatment of workers.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, a non-agrarian, family was able to live relatively well on one salary and it became easier to acquire a house and car. These children of the Traditionalists (people born between 1925 and 1945) were the leading edge of the working Baby Boomers and, because of the post-war boom, were in high demand.

Fast forward to the 1970’s and it starts getting very unpleasant. Inflation mushroomed, gas prices exploded and so did the work week. Between 1977 and 1997, the workweek expanded by over 8% (43.6 hours to 47.1 hours a week on average). A 70 hour work week became de rigueur.

At the same time, anti-discrimination laws began to address gender and pregnancy discrimination. Good thing. Because of inflation, the single worker salary was just not enough to cover expenses or sock away a little extra for education or retirement.

In the mid-1980’s the term “work-life balance” emerged to describe the separation (or lack thereof) between work and home. This generation was dubbed the “Me Generation,” called “yuppies” or “yummies” (young, upwardly mobile professionals), “buppies” (Black upwardly-mobile professionals), or members of the “Age of Isolation.” Latchkey and shuttle cock kids were found to have increased attention deficits (over-stimulated and exhausted) and poorer diets. Our kids are getting fatter and (can I say it plainly) dumber.

And a new industry was born.

What concerns me in the discussion of work-life balance is that there seems to be little concern with whether the work we’re trying to balance is important. Sure, moving things from one side of the desk to the other in a particular workday and schlepping the kidlets to soccer/swim/tap/tai-kwon-jitsu seems laudable, but it that what’s really important? Oh, yeah, and can we make all of that work without factoring out personal happiness and satisfaction.

Talking with a group of women, I heard many explain that they had to sacrifice for their children. Why then, I asked, was it only women that are heard having that conversation? There are a few home truths to consider here:

  • Can women continue to do it all? Honestly, no. Our personal Kryptonite? "Bad mother/Bad housekeeper/Bad cook/Bad (fill in the blank)"—these words can stop a powerful woman at 50 yards. Rather than determining whether we’re doing the right things, we go like little "doing bots," hauling kids on endless expeditions to every social, sporting and school event imaginable; being the first one called when a younger (or elder) family member hits the skids; doing all the laundry/shopping/cooking/planning...and trying to do it all perfectly (if we don't just give up in despair).
  • While in doing-bot mode, we inadvertently (and almost unconsciously) teach our daughters that a woman's life is sacrifice and suffering. Just recently, a 14 year-old girl I met, in discussing harried her mother, vowed “I’ll never have children.”
  • Can men still have it all without women to take up most of the slack? I don't think so. Sad truth on this one...we, as women (the first educators of children) teach future generations of men what to expect from the women in their lives and teach future generations of women how to be those women...such that those expectations fall beneath their—and our—notice (like the air and the grass). If I had a buck for every woman I’ve ever heard who said “I wish I had a wife,” I could buy a Starbucks!
  • At the same time, I'd like to recognize what a treadmill it can be for men who would rather gnaw off a limb than not "provide for the family"--how that can drive them into being little "doing bots" in their own right.

What Does it Take to Have it All

“Having it all,” as defined by others, takes a whole lot of support.

What I don’t think we’re focusing on is whether people are doing work that matters or that’s workable. As the workday gets filled with ass-covering email tracking, cryptic voicemail deciphering, endless meetings (to “report in” to micromanaging bosses who are poorly deployed), we find ourselves doing less “real work”—work that fulfills strategic intentions and desired outcomes.

When asked “can you really get your two kids to all those events,” I’ve never heard a woman who has been able to say a clean “no—it’s not feasible” or ‘no, that’s too much for a school night” even though that’s their persistent complaint.

Leaders must be selected, placed and trained to better plan, support and counsel, becoming champions of their workers, committed to blasting barriers and garnering needed resources. They must be challenged to be better workload planners, using their prowess to determine how to best use people to fulfill on business strategy—rather than becoming experts at moving piles around. At the same time, in our families, we have to be more focused in the “bigger game” managing our overarching aims: a happy, satisfying family life; personal satisfaction and personal growth and health, well-developed children who can function well in society without becoming time, energy or emotional vampires.


David said...

Great piece Lalita! Echos my thoughts, and, I'd bet those of a lot of others. It leaves me wondering what, if anything, can cause this to change. Sadly, I don't see it happening. The great "success" of industrial society post WWII has been to turn "desires" into "needs" and focus us on fulfilling them.
The good thing is this has improved the lot of many people enormously because it has meant mass production has rendered many things relatively inexpensive.
The bad thing, perhaps outweighing the good, is that it has turned us into the "willing slaves" you describe in order to get more and more. How often do you "need" to replace a mobile phone?? To what extent do you "need" HD TV?? So long as we aspire to the newest/latest/fastest there is no way out of this. And nobody it going to fix it for us. At an individual level you can make some choice, in the face of implicit peer pressure, but the "machine" is not going to stop until EITHER enough people won't play OR something jams it! Maybe the energy problems we are now seeing will be a catalyst for this, but I suspect not. There is no overall shortage of energy on the planet - just a very inefficient way of harnessing it - and fixing that will turn the wheels of industry, generate new "must haves" etc etc.
Perhaps it is just the human condition to behave this way?

Lalita said...

Brilliant, David. Love the way you describe the gerbil-wheel nature of our voluntary slavery (hear the squeek?). The sad thing--there is no gerbil wheel.