Work As Identity and the Social Safety Net

This week, I’m reading Jody Heymann’s The Widening Gap. This book makes a pretty compelling argument that if you’re a working mother in the United States and you aren’t especially well-off, you’re often forced to choose between providing adequate care for your kids and working. This is the same idea that Arlie Russell Hochschild finds in The Time Bind – she follows the workers at a firm in Middle America and sees that while flex hours are nominally an option for parents, it’s usually the moms who are expected to take them and they can’t take them without being perceived as less dedicated than other workers.

My personal philosophy of work, still nascent, is that we spend around half of our waking time in our adult lives doing work – that makes it inherently tied to our identity, no matter how we might like to say that it’s “just a job.” Then, the best world I can imagine is one in which everyone is perfectly fit to their work. In such a world, work is a meaning-making activity. It pays, but it also gives purpose to each person’s life.

I think in the current world, some people get work that gives their life a purpose. Some people get their purpose from elsewhere – maybe religion or service to their community or to their family. But I think the vast majority of people probably don’t see their lives as having much of a purpose at all. It took some noodling around the Gallup page on Well-Being, but I found this statistic: as of 2014, 44% of non-entrepreneurs surveyed did not feel a “strong sense of purpose.” For the entrepreneurs, that jumps to 51%.

So, here’s the issue I’m bumping up against: I believe that our work has the potential to give purpose to our lives. But so long as there isn’t an appropriate social safety net to provide care for our kids, our siblings, our spouse, our parents, or our grandparents, somebody in the family has to do that job. In practice, the lack of a social safety net keeps women at home and prevents them from realizing their purpose.

(Note: I’m not trying to denigrate people who choose to stay at home here – I think if you choose it, you’re probably deriving meaning from it. All I’m saying is that there is some non-zero proportion of women who are forced to stay at home when they might find another profession more meaningful.)

There are a few policy changes we could make, a few adjustments that might ease this:

  1. Year-round schooling with hours that make it possible to drop your kid off before work and pick them up directly after work.
  2. Shorter workdays – do we really need to be working for eight hours? Could we make a six-hour workday work? (I guess another question is: how many hours must we work per day to have purposeful work?)
  3. Laws that make you less likely to lose your job if you need time off to care for someone else – I think this should include anyone you’re caring for, even friends and weird cousins. After all, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 says that it’s fine if this leave is unpaid, as long as it’s job-protected. Given that you aren’t being paid, you’re just sure that you’ll have something to return to, I don’t think it should matter who it is you’re leaving work to care for.
  4. Expansion of benefits we already have – The FMLA is pretty nitpicky about who is eligible. You need to be at a firm that employs more than 50 people, you must be employed there for a year before applying for leave, and you have to have worked more than 25 hour per week in that year. More than expanding the FMLA though, there should be more flexibility for small, sudden illnesses – kid comes down with the flu or husband gets a stomach bug.

I have a dumb idea to solve the “but who’s going to do the job?” problem for firms: substitute workers. People who know that they’re going to be temporary and just filling in a slot. I think I’d be happy to serve as a waitress for an afternoon if I knew that I wasn’t going to have to go back the next day. I think if you wanted to pull this off, as a firm, you’d need to have a pool of semi-trained substitutes, or you’d need to assign that substitute to a task that makes trained employees’ life easier so that they can take over the tricky tasks. In waitressing, I’m thinking of fulfilling beverage orders, doing side work, and cleaning. You would need to be able to communicate via email and phone – when I’ve held service jobs in the past, they’ve only communicated via phone, and I usually don’t see that there’s been a call until it’s too late.

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