Diversity of voices, follow up to work life balance

Yesterday’s post was written on the fly, more in a fit of annoyance yet it has provoked a lot of comments and thoughts. So much that I feel the need to expand on it with a few more thoughts.

Growing up as a child of the working class, my first memories of work were that it seemed hard and dirty. Grownups went to work and came home tired and sometimes in pain. Work was a place where it seemed other grownups who were deemed more important told the masses what to do and when to do it. Looking back now, my initial assumptions about work made a lot of sense. As a kid, my father was a union fork lift operator and general hack, my grandparents both worked at plants where they stood on their feet all day but earned enough money that by the time I arrived in ’73, they were able to have a slice of the middle class pie. My grandma went to Jamaica every year, my grandpa had a big floor television, they owed their own house and they saved for retirement. Jobs like this once upon a time in America brought many people into the middle class. The downside was these were not jobs people would be doing until their 60’s or 70’s because often they were physically demanding; they were also jobs where employees had little if any autonomy.

All of my early jobs were very much like the work of my parents and grandparents, work that was either physically demanding or office work where going to the bathroom too many times could cause you to lose your job. I didn’t realize autonomy existed in the workplace until I was about 25 or so and started working at places where I had a say in my work, where being late for work was no big deal as long as I got my work done. It was about that time, I made the decision to go to college and embark upon a career and I am thankful for the choices I now have.

I now live in a world where if I decide to stay at home and work in my jammies, no one cares. Hell, as long as my staff shows up and does their jobs, I could work all the time at home. I have no boss waiting for me at the office; I see my bosses once a month at a board meeting. When my kid is sick, my days might be mildly stressed just from having a sick child but neither me nor my partner are concerned that her sick day will lead to no food on the table.  My life partner who is also a child of the working class (his Mum was a barber and father an electrician) also has work that he does from home. He hasn’t been in a traditional office in over a decade. This has allowed us to navigate the inconvenience of not having a village locally because our world of work offers us choices.

Yet I haven’t forgotten the times when I was a young divorced mother of a toddler and the only job I could get was working as a barista at a coffee shop in downtown Chicago. I worked the 5am to 1pm shift, a schedule that was untenable as a single mother and hard even when you have a partner. I didn’t last too long at that job but not before I moved on to working two four jobs every day while taking care of a small child full time…fun times…not. However those moments have continued to stay with me even though that is no longer my world.

Someone asked me yesterday how we can include more voices in the “discussions” being had about work-life balance. Well for starters, the recognition of our own class privilege would be a great place because where you are on the class spectrum determines what you find important. For the mom who works at the restaurant as a waitress, knowing that she can get shifts that allow her to be active in her kids waking hours would be a great place. Better yet, maybe we need to rethink how food service folks are compensated. In the US, most food servers are paid less than minimum wage because the assumption is that the server makes oodles of tips. Having done a few stints in my younger days as a server, I will say that can be true but the truly lucrative shifts are often the ones at odds with parenting. Too many jobs in this country are paid on an hourly wage basis which means no work, no money. Maybe we need to look at that too.

I think if we reexamined how people are paid in the US that would go a long way to starting a real dialogue on things like family leave time. Right now too many people whose livelihoods require that they be physically present are just not interested in hearing what many of us are saying because we aren’t talking the same language. (I have had this discussion with several of my child’s classmates who do work the restaurant industry as well as people who work retail)

Another thing that needs to be looked at is where are these discussions being held? On the surface many good dialogues are being held online but we and anyone interested in creating real change needs to consider that by holding these dialogues in limited settings are we creating opportunities for all voices to be heard? (Today’s Motherlode column in the NY Times is a perfect example, the people who respond to this most likely will be very similar since not everyone has time to read the Times and answer a survey) For people whose work is directed by others even down to whether or not they can go to the bathroom, they don’t have time to tweet or read blogs and start discussions. Online activism is great but for a segment of the population, they need to be reached with old fashion organizing.

In the US, a good 15% of the population is living in poverty which is defined as an income of $23,021 for a family of four and the median income is $50,054 which means that a fair number of Americans are struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table as wages continue to stagnate. It also means that when people are struggling to meet their basic needs, it’s hard to look at the larger picture but for those of us who are talking and looking at ways to change things it means we need to make sure that we don’t forget these folks. I grew up as one of those folks and I don’t want to forget and I want to make sure when we are having these discussions that their voices are heard.