27 April 2007

Working for "The Man"

I work for "The Man."

Of course, as an academic librarian, I'm not working to make some godlike CEO a profit, since academic institutions are nonprofit. But I still feel like I am part of that culture of profit, slaving away at a job while giving little thought to my actual life. I talked with my mother the other day about this, about how we spend most of our waking hours at a job that we may or may not like. I admire self-employed folks who use their talents to support themselves. An artist has an opportunity to do what s/he loves and make a wage for it. Granted, these folks usually have to take a vow of poverty, but why is it that we are so afraid of simpler lives and automatically shudder at the thought of living on less?

With all of the talk about Linda Hirschman's latest New York Times article, encouraging women to go back to work after having children, I have been wondering if this is "the" answer to female equality. Some of the talk on feminist blogs has centered around how arrogant Hirschman's manifesto is, that many women do not enjoy their work and would rather stay home with the kid for a couple of years. Or that many women do not make high enough wages in the first place to justify a regular babysitter, so they are actually saving money by staying home with the kid for a couple of years. Or that many women really don't even have an option to stay home with the kid for a couple of years, because they are a single mother, or because they need the health insurance, or because dad doesn't make enough to support the whole family because minimum wage in this country does not equal a living wage. Is our current work model broken?

Considering someone like my brother, I think it is. At times, it seems to me that my brother is nothing more than a wage slave to his family. He has three small children, with his wife staying home to take care of them. She could go to work, but with the three kids, they would likely lose money in the process, and they see no point in working for the sake of working. That's a respectable choice. Nobody should be a wage slave. Not in this country, and not in 2007. But we all are.

I work in academia, and plan to do so after my radical life change. I am lucky, because college campuses tend to be more progressive, and are more flexible with family emergencies. It is not uncommon to see a professor's children running up and down the halls of an academic building or quietly read at a table in the library, something which can brighten up my day in an instant. But you would not see that at a for-profit workplace. There is a strict divide between work life and family life. Family matters do not belong in the workplace, yet we have no problems bringing work matters into our family lives. Blackberry, anyone?

Being a woman who wants to have kids someday fairly soon, this is something that is at the forefront of my mind, because the idea of this either-or choice scares me. I am lucky in that I will most likely have a family friendly workplace at that time, and will be able to combine a comfortable professional life with a thriving family life. But I think of the other women and men who are not as fortunate. Where is their safety net when the kid comes down with the flu and needs a parent to stay home and make sure s/he doesn't dehydrate? Currently, we don't have one, and the Hirschmans of the world don't really care. Because we should be striving for that cushy lifestyle that we see advertised endlessly on TV while neglecting time with family, or working our collective asses to the bone to outsource our childcare, for what I'm not exactly sure.

The work structure in this country needs to change. Don't force dads into the wage slave role, which in turn disengages them from family matters, simply because they are the traditional breadwinners. (Pay equity would be a good start.) Don't just give women the false "choice"* between a) staying at home and being castigated by feminists for "opting out" of the workforce or b) working and being castigated by fellow mothers for neglecting the children. Part of the solution is to drive society toward a less materialistic lifestyle of power-hungry over-consumption and to place more value on relationships with our families, friends, neighbors, pets. Make the public and private spheres less divided, and start to allow real life circumstances to be considered in the workplace. Not only will this make people happier and possibly cut down on anxiety and depression, but it will also make our way of life more environmentally sustainable. In the end, women will have a real choice about what to do with their lives. There are a whole myriad of other problems to sort out in the meantime, such as health care, living wage, and pay equity, to name a few. But change starts in the grass, folks, which is why I wrote this post.

* I don't think women really do have a choice, because cultural and financial pressures usually force women to make these "choices".

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