In the End, What Really Matters?
Warning: I'm feeling rather philosophical - make that downright spiritual. I've just finished reading Arlie Hochschild's The Time Bind (her 1997 follow-up to The Second Shift), which of course I should have read long ago but, well, didn't. I'm actually not sure I would have appreciated it as much if I'd read it a few years ago, so I'm happy to have devoured it now. Or rather, I'm glad I waited to have the nightmares I'm now having.
The Time Bind is like that old horror movie (and book) about conformity, The Stepford Wives, in many ways - only it's real. It follows Dr. Hochschild (sociology professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley) into a seemingly ideal, top-rated Fortune 500 company she re-names Amerco to protect the innocent. There, she is granted in-depth interviews with anyone she wishes to meet, from top brass to midnight assembly line workers. She follows them home and interviews their spouses, observes their children, and offers a therapist's view of what is really going on in their heads as they work themselves to the bone and sacrifice the well-being of their families at the same time their company offers them all sorts of work-life balance perks they generally ignore.
"What's going on here?", Dr. Hochschild sets out to answer. Not what many of us might think. The answers are chilling, and so completely sad. The Amerco employees work because their company has become their real home - much simpler, much more instantly gratifying or at least palatable than dealing with the messiness of home, kids and partner. They work because the work culture at Amerco has brainwashed them into thinking that work is w-a-y more important - often the only important thing in their lives - than the stuff that really counts. They've drunk the KoolAid that proves they are devoted workers first, and that...oh, well, yeah I have some kids but that's beside the point. They think that a balanced life is a crazy notion - or something they'll find a way to have at some future date, with some fictitious version of themselves they cling to but don't value by actions.
Amerco is American business. It is all the well-meaning but capitalistic-success-driven companies that offer flex schedules and work-from-home options and reduced hours that maybe 1% of employees dare sign up to take. It wants workers to be happy, and it feeds them its own brand of happiness in a 'workplace culture' that makes us forget we are people, parents, brothers, sisters, lovers, friends, neighbors too. It values face time, not results (even as it often says differently). It forgets that sometimes the best workers are those who are actually free to see their kids and cultivate happy marriages. And in this downturned economy that has those of us who are still employed working scared, it is alive and well.
Along comes the President of France. As described in the terrific new Work.Life blog over at True/Slant, Mr. Sarkozy is challenging nations (nevermind simply corporations) to think completely differently about their value. He's suggesting that instead of measuring the success of a country by its economic output, we also measure this by the general well-being if its citizens. In other words, happiness could possibly count for something! Imagine a world where the end goal wasn't how many things we buy, consume or produce. A world where a 'rich' country afforded its citizens more leisure and time with our families rather than a chance to work yet harder with each passing year.
Mr. Sarkozy's brilliant ideas will probably come to nothing. They'll end up in some metaphoric landfill somewhere, buried underneath the stuff we've consumed that took long hours at work for us to earn. After The Time Bind, I'm cynical.
But, at least for each of us personally, I'm very hopeful. With ESP, we chose differently every day. It gives us a chance to do good work, the ability stay connected intimately with our families and remember that this is our greatest joy, and the option to align our lives with what we each truly value most.