A new backlash? How to Defend Work-Family Policies: Presentation in Malmö, Sweden

Post in: German

Work-family policies and programming have made enormous leaps forward in the public and private sectors in the last decades of the 20th century and first decades of the 21st century. The goal, broadly and generally stated, is enabling paid work, unpaid work, family care, self-care, and community involvement to all be part of a normal adult life course, regardless of gender or industry. We are not there yet.
Some areas of activism for work-family policy advocates include limiting work hours (for example, limitations on technology use evenings and weekends), increasing the quality and accessibility of child care, improving the fit of the school day and paid work hours, increasing the possibilities for time-and/or-place flexible paid work, improving the access of parents who have taken parental leave to return to paid work (at the same status they had before their leave; i.e. job protections), increasing fathers’ uptake of parental leave, part time work, and flexible work, increasing managers’ awareness of the importance of work and life initiatives for the long-range business and social situation, increasing the presence of women in leadership positions, and creating better possibilities for workers to become parents and for workers to care for aging or ill family members.
The term “work-family backlash” has been used to describe the negative reactions of people who don’t take advantage of work-family benefits and policies, reacting to their perceived disadvantage compared to colleagues who do take advantage of work-family benefits (Young 1999; Parker and Allen 2001). This classical work-family backlash is felt by the users of such policies, such as parents receiving social stigmas from colleagues for taking parental leave or leaving work earlier in the day for family reasons. But a second dimension of work-family backlash is that some public opinion voices, policy makers, political figures, and business leaders are targeting the policies themselves for backlash.
I am at the Conference “6th International Community, Work and Family Conference in Malmö, Sweden from 19-22 May 2015”, and I presented a paper on precisely this topic: we who work in the area of community, work and family research and policy may need to keep our eyes open for a new backlash or pushback against the very principles we hold dear. The presentation slides are here: 2015-05-20 Work-Life Backlash-online

A recent example comes from Germany, where the editor of a philosophical magazine “Hohe Luft,” Thomas Vašek, wrote a book called “Work-Life Bullshit: Why the separation of work and life leads nowhere” (my translation of the German title). Though it’s ranked 62,833 in the Amazon bestseller list, the title alone lends support for those who are skeptical about work-life balance. Several newspapers reacted, and many bloggers have responded (most to take issue with his arguments). His title suggests we all toss away the work-life initiatives and everyone should get his and her nose to the grindstone. It turns out he is not alone; others reject work-family policies and speak openly about it.
Vašek assumes that work-life scholars and policy makers advocate work’s limitation so that we can all get on with the “real” life after hours. He assumes work-life initiatives are about removing us from too much work, and that these initiatives imply that work is bad. Vašek pleas for work to be good quality and rewarding so that we don’t need to escape it. We don’t need work-life balance, he claims, if we love our work and are good at it.
Scholars and policy makers in the fields of work and family agree fully that paid work should be good quality. But we disagree with his argument that paid work should have no limits.Here I offer scholars and policy makers some ideas to successfully defend the relevance of work-life research and policy, especially against those who have taken only a cursory first impression of work-life initiatives and, whatever their motivation, reject the concept of setting limits on the reach of paid work.
Here I offer scholars and policy makers some ideas to successfully defend the relevance of work-life research and policy, especially against those who have taken only a cursory first impression of work-life initiatives and, whatever their motivation, reject the concept of setting limits on the reach of paid work.

The primary arguments and weaknesses of the generalized work-life backlash fall along three dimensions: (1) the wrong definition of work-life balance, (2) a too-narrow definition of the work-life situation, and (3) misunderstandings around the meaning of work in various national, cultural, or gender contexts. I cover the first two in this blog.

How the “backlash” rhetoric has been getting the facts on work-life wrong
The first misunderstanding in backlash texts is that work-life policy makers, scholars, and practitioners are trying to get people away from “evil” work. And the logical consequence of that assumption is that (a) if work is not evil, but rather is pleasurable, we shouldn’t need to get away from it, and (b) if work IS evil, we should work on improving work quality, not avoiding work.
The point of work-life balance or work-life integration initiatives is to address the total person, not just the commodified worker, in paid work, not to rip people away from jobs they love as the primary goal. Human beings are not parts of a machine, and they shouldn’t be treated as if they are – not by firms, bosses, themselves, or their own family members. Every work-life scholar and practitioner would agree with the goal of improving the quality of work. Sometimes quality can be best improved by setting boundaries on work, or changing work so that it is more holistic and nurturing of the total person. The work of Stew Friedman on integrating spheres of life, so that multiple areas of life are fed within the same activities, contributes a great deal to the discussion of work-life initiatives (Friedman 2008). In sum, some of the general backlash is just based on wrong assumptions about work-life or work-family initiatives are about.

How the backlash is defining the work-life situation too narrowly
Paid work — commodified work — gets most of the attention in the work-life backlash. But there are other kinds of work: unpaid caregiving work, kinkeeping work, volunteer service. These need attention, too. By omitting these areas from the discussion about work-life, we miss an opportunity to reflect about the inevitable shortcomings of paid work for the human psyche, community and family needs. Paid work alone is ill equipped to provide all that we individually or collectively need in life.
To understand the focus on paid work to the neglect of unpaid caregiving work, in this discussion today as well as in general public discourse, we need to understand the archetypes that emerged a couple hundred years ago in western industrializing countries. These archetypes and their functioning are necessary to understand two different framings of the work-life discussion.
One of these framings is whether work and “life” should be separated or integrated within an individual person’s life. And the second relevant framing is whether work and “life” should be, or are, separated within the family unit, with (for example, in the archetypal case) the man handling the “work” and the woman handling the “life.” This second, gendered, framing informs the first, in powerful ways. This second framing makes the work of “life” invisible. It says that the only “work” is “paid work,” and everything else isn’t “work.” It’s not true that the only work is paid, or that being paid for work is what defines work as work. The dominance of the paid worker, and the centrality of paid work in individuals’ waking hours and contemporary public identity, has not “always been that way.” It has grown out of a unique historical situation.
The industrial revolution spurred many changes in social and economic life. The one I describe for these purposes is the separation of work and “the private sphere.” When factories, and offices to manage their bureaucratic demands, emerged and absorbed huge numbers of workers, they evolved to select a preferred kind of worker: “the Ideal Worker” (Williams 2000). The “ideal worker” is always available for the employer or the work and never “offline,” is completely devoted, high-performing, ambitious, and willing to relocate or work long hours or weekends or skip vacations. To paraphrase a typical sentiment of archetypal Ideal Worker, “Vacations? What vacations? I LOVE TO WORK. Let me bring it with me, let all the world know that I am happy to work round the clock, never offline! You need that done? Sure, I’ll do it! Right now!”
Strong cultural prescriptions of what the proper work is for men and women emerged at the time and have stayed alive in contemporary western industrialized countries, supported by rhetoric and 19th century science of how men were supposedly more biologically suitable for the kind of physically or intellectually demanding work in factories and offices. The demands of the newly emerging machine dictated the demands on the human body, that of constant availability. This kind of worker was, at the time, a man because this worker never took a day off for doing something “abnormal” (read: unmasculine) like giving birth. The Ideal Worker is an archetype.
Paid work is not the only kind of work. Hygiene demands that homes, dishes, bodies, and clothes be cleaned. The next generation is not born self-sufficient and well-socialized. Our biology requires that we provision, prepare, and eat a variety of food fairly regularly. When shall this unpaid work happen? Who will do this unpaid work? Some firms seem to have attempted to get around this issue by providing clean clothes, warm food, sports facilities, and showers right at the workplace. Is that really a tenable solution for every worker, in every workplace? Do we want a generation without children, a moving mass of humanity that rolls to work and rolls home again only to sleep and get up to do it all again? The “social freezing” concepts in recent news, where firms offer to cover the costs of their female employees freezing their eggs to postpone parenthood, bring the point clearly home: to paraphrase, “there is no time to get about the business of reproduction, so better freeze all that is social, all that is regenerative, close, loving, and nurturing, until we, the workplace, can’t use you anymore.”
These examples illustrate that archetype of the ideal worker has its counterpart. The “ideal worker” requires the “unpaid caregiver” or “marginalized caregiver” at home managing the left over parts of civilization (Williams 2000). Here again, historical cultural forces created a concept that has been rationalized with biological arguments that because of women’s physiology and supposedly “natural” inclinations to care for and about others, women should be supposedly ideally suited to be these unpaid caregivers. The whole system of work, social policies, tax systems, and general social norms in most industrialized countries is dependent on these archetypes, this cooperation between the ideal worker and the marginalized unpaid caregiver.
The irony is that the types are interdependent, not exclusive. The ideal worker can only perform in the exclusively focused, devoted way when a caregiver – paid or unpaid – is keeping his or her clothes clean, food cooked, and children raised. The caregiver can only provide care when someone is providing the livelihood.
If we take on the attitude that work life concepts are, pardon me, “bullshit” as the Vasek says, we ignore the competing logics and demands of work and the rest of “life,” and we ignore the fact that the one – modern work – has been designed and evolved to depend on the other – modern invisible “life” maintenance and care. These are points that managers need to understand before they go glorifying and rewarding the “ideal worker” or racing around bemoaning work-life issues as “bullshit.”
The logics of the modern workplace can only function and continue when we have separated the spheres of work and life. We have to change the logics of the modern workplace. That’s what the work-life and work-family-community initiatives are about. It is dangerous to modern workers to continue with separate spheres, because it denies the workers access to relationships and identities outside of paid work. And it keeps millions of human beings, mostly women, dependent on the earnings of someone else, locked out of the economic freedom, identity, and social standing that comes from the paid work role and leaving them at enormous risk of poverty in later life. We discuss portions of these dilemmas in public discourse, but rarely the source. And the source is the separation of work from “life,” and its separation along gender lines, and our institutions and laws and policies and norms that reinforce this separation.
The work-life discussions have arisen in recent years largely fueled by the presence of women in the paid labor market. These women don’t have a caregiver at home, so they’re confronted full-force with the dual demands of the ideal worker and the marginalized caregiver. And it is utterly impossible, by design, to fulfill both roles ideally. They are diametrically opposed to each other in their expectations of time use, loyalties, and goals.
Women in the labor market have brought the topic to light, but men stand to benefit greatly from changes in a strict work-life separation, too. The ideal worker has fewer freedoms to explore alternative pathways; the burden of earnings responsibility looms large and the price of failure is unbelievably high. Trying to live up to the ideal worker for 30-40 years takes its toll on relationships, health, stamina, identity, and personality development.
At a societal level, when good quality paid work is concentrated in very few hands, we deny the possibility to share good paid work across other groups who have much to offer but don’t fit the mold. As a result we have youth unemployment, chronic unemployment for some, underemployment for others, women denied access to the labor market after caregiving for their families. We also deny ourselves the possibility to share unpaid work — the work of raising the next generation, of caring for our elderly and those with physical and mental limitations, caring for our homes, animals, gardens, neighborhoods, communities. With the balance within a life and within a family and society, we are all enriched.

Work-life topics are relevant for a growing number of groups of workers, due to the much-discussed new priorities of the “Generation Y” at one end of the work career and needs of those transitioning to retirement in later stages of the career. Growing concerns about health and sustainability are added to the much-researched and well-documented needs of couples, families, and individuals in managing work and non-work in a variety of ways over time. Important points are:
1) Types of work (paid, unpaid, voluntary) are important for understanding work-life balance.
2) The quality of work is important: not all jobs are good or healthy to perform in limitless ways.
3) The publics who argue against work-life balance carry assumptions about the universalism of the “Ideal Worker” and blend out the role of the “Marginalized Caregiver” despite the interdependencies of these two archetypes (Williams 2000).
4) Health and long-term productivity and sustainability perspectives go missing in the “celebration of work” arguments.

Please comment with additional points to strengthen the arguments for work-life policies to help people live full and healthy lives!

Conference: “6th International Community, Work and Family Conference: Malmö, Sweden 19-22 May 2015”
Presentation slides given at the conference: 2015-05-20 Work-Life Backlash-online
Works cited

  • Becker, Tobias. (2013). Sachbuch “Work-Life-Bullshit”: Die Mär vom glücklichen Malocher. Speigel Online Kultur, October 9. http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/literatur/das-buch-von-thomas-vasek-work-life-bullshit-a-926733.html. Last accessed 19. April 2015.
  • Friedman, Stew. (2008). Total Leadership: Be a better leader, have a richer life. Boston: Harvard Business Press.
  • Parker, L., & Allen, T. D. (2001). Work/family benefits: Variables related to employees’ fairness perceptions. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 58, 453-468.
  • Vašek, Thomas. (2013). Work-Life-Bullshit. Warum die Trennung von Arbeit und Leben in die Irre führt. Munich: Riemann Verlag.
  • Williams, Joan. (2000). Unbending Gender: Why work and Family Conflict and What we Can Do About It. Oxford University Press.
  • Young, M. B. (1999). Work-family backlash: Begging the question, what’s fair? The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 562, 32-46.

Additional sources regarding the topic of Work-Life Backlash (Note: some defend the ideas of work-family integration / balance / optimization)

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2 Comments


  1. Jerry Colonna
    May 21, 2015

    Thanks for your important work here. It’s thoughtful, insightful and helpful. Ideally work like yours will lead to the a decrease in the guilt and anxiety people feel in trying to balance their lives. One concern I have however is that my essay may be perceived as further evidence of the backlash you thoughtfully point out. I don’t believe the essay says that. My intent was to argue for a different conversation where work and life are not seen in opposition to each other. My belief is that one path through would be to have policies that support the whole individual in work, encouraging them to live an integrated and balanced life. Policies such as those you explore support that effort. Thanks.


    • Heather Hofmeister
      May 05, 2016

      Dear Jerry, I really appreciate the work you are doing, and I share your hope that policies could support the whole individual. Thanks for clarifying your message here! Warmly, Heather Hofmeister

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