The King, Cinderella, and 168 Hours: Work and Free Space

Post in: German

Just published! In: Prethinking Work: Insights on the Future of Work. Sabina Jeschke, Frank Hees, Anja Richert, Sven Trantow (eds). Vienna: LIT Verlag.

I’m writing this at my home office on a snowy February morning. The topic Prethinking work invites me to reflect on the prefix pre, sending my thoughts to previous historical times. And since this reflection should be about prethinking work, then I’ll go with my gut – what do I feel about work? Finally, what is work? Here we go, using the work of writing to illustrate.

Revolutions in Writing a Text

If it were 1700, as a professional writer I’d be a man, writing with an ink pen on paper at home. I would have the luxury to concentrate because servants would be taking care of the household and children. If it were 1900, a professional writer would still be a man, writing by hand, in an office. If it were 1950, my female secretary or I might type the manuscript, in an office. Here in 2012, I’m a woman (revolutionary) working at home again (revolutionary), but without servants (revolutionary); instead, a highly differentiated labor market and my own time management plus advanced technologies make household management somehow possible (revolutionary). Technology, for example, makes it possible for me to write, edit, and send this piece instantly from home.

Human Beings, not Human Doings

How privileged this working situation is! I’m at home putting thoughts into a beautifully formatted document, cup of tea at my side, dog under the desk, as snow falls outside. On the other hand, the work has no end. No one limits my work hours. New requests, demands, opportunities, and threats flow into the “inbox” endlessly. We each have only 168 hours a week. Some of those must be spent on the fact that we are human beings, not human doings. I could spend unlimited time on each of the responsibilities to be a great teacher, researcher, networker, and administrator. Colleagues send emails around the clock. I must manage the intense time demands of this kind of work in a very personal way, with only myself to blame if I fail. It’s like this for many workers. We each have only 168 hours a week. Some of those must be spent on the fact that we are human beings, not human doings. Our physical, social, spiritual selves must be fed on all levels — or we will die. Yet modern paid work relentlessly ignores these demands. We adjust on the private side: we avoid or postpone children, we import workers to care for our dependents, we relocate worldwide for work and thereby strain kinship networks and place-based identities, we eat on the run, lose sleep, and forget to exercise. We forget how to breathe deeply, turn off and tune in. We fill empty spaces with busy consumption. We rarely question the work, instead we blame ourselves for failing. What do these changes say about the way work is fitting into, or taking over, our lives?
We’re living through a work situation that continues the values of the industrial revolution in the context of a technology revolution that detaches work from time and place limits, with not-always-healthy consequences for human beings. The physical, social, and spiritual needs of the human being had been built into the fabric of society historically. Every culture set aside days for rest and celebration, valued and regulated relations between and among people, made arrangements for the care of the next generation and of the elderly. Some things are supposed to happen as part of being human, but these fall outside of modern commodified understandings of work and have lost their legitimate place in the idealized contemporary modern workday, work week. Or life.

Implications for Work Design

There are actually four kinds of work, all vital. First there’s paid work, these days acting like the king, taking his tax in the form of the prime waking hours and years, defining social identity, defined by male life courses, and increasingly greedy, leaving ever-fewer crumbs for the others. The second is unpaid work, keeping self and surroundings clean, maintained, cared for: Cinderella, slaving away invisibly, but whose absence is evident if she goes off to dance with – or become – the king. The third kind is kinkeeping work, maintaining family relations, work often not acknowledged as work at all, but if it doesn’t happen, then the support networks will not be there in the event of emergency or to remind us of our humanity. The fourth kind of work is education, formally assigned to the young but vital for the mind’s longevity. Sustainable work design will make space for all four and recognize that human beings need also to recharge and reconnect with themselves, need space outside of work.
Thus some of our rising productivity must be used for buying back our lives, not for increasing financial returns. Some of our rising productivity must be used for buying back our lives. Time and task management over the life course and across gender divides are crucial public issues. It’s a waste of human resources to divide work as we currently do. Dividing the work so that men primarily do the kingly paid work hurts men’s and children’s health; having women specialize in Cinderella unpaid and kinkeeping work increases women’s risks of poverty and deprives paid work spheres of women’s talents. Assuming that all education must occur before age 25 or 30 bankrupts society by warehousing potential talent in unemployment. Let’s invest in education all along the life course, allow ebbs and flows in work biographies, invite everyone to all four kinds of work, and leave space for life outside of work, for free space.

Hofmeister, Heather. 2012. The King, Cinderella, and 168 Hours: Work and Free Space in Historical and Life Course Perspective. In Prethinking Work: Insights on the Future of Work, Eds. Sabina Jeschke, Frank Hees, Anja Richert, Sven Trantow, 11-12. Vienna: LIT Verlag.

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