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.

Work-life balance and the working stiff at the bottom

For more than a week now the national media here in the US and the digital media world have been on fire talking about Yahoo’s increasingly unpopular CEO Marissa Mayer and her decision to end telecommuting at the struggling company. I wrote a piece last week for The Portland Phoenix with some of my thoughts on the situation and figured I was done with the matter. However it’s clear this issue won’t die which is actually pretty funny since with all the talk about work-life balance being bandied around, there is a growing segment of the population that is so invisible that they rarely merit any significant discussion. The millions of men and women in this country who since the Great Recession aren’t in the middle class and if they are working, the jobs they work at barely pay a living wage, much less allow for privileges such as telecommuting. After all how exactly can that 35 year old mother of two who serves up overpriced beverages to the privileged folks who have the luxury of working from either home or the local Starbucks do her job from home and still get paid.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine drinking a virtual latte, nor can I imagine having a virtual clerk at the local department store assist me from the comfort of her home. When we discuss issues that we hold dear, too often we are looking at them through a privileged lens where choices exist, where we can choose work to fit our lives and not the other way around. Work-life balance is important and technology is a beautiful thing but it pains me to see that for front line workers whose jobs cannot be done from home, who is speaking for them?

In the coming days and weeks with the sequestration cuts poised to take effect, for millions living is about to get a heck of a lot harder and balance… what is that? Can we be honest? Work-life balance is yet another perk that one gets for either being born on at least second base or somehow getting to second base and frankly I think that needs to be acknowledged. Growing up working class, I am intimately aware that there are more than a handful of jobs that won’t ever be done from the comfort of one’s home. After all when you need a plumber or an electrician, chances are you want them to actually show up at your house and resolve the problem.

For many working class folks, work-life balance might be more about making sure their jobs pay wages they can actually live off of. That means wages that pay the bills, allows one to save a little and maybe even get a vacation once a year. See, it’s hard to feel balanced when you never have enough money to make your ends meets yet that is the reality for millions. If we want to have a real discussion about work life balance, then we need to make sure that discussion involves people from across the class spectrum so that it is a true dialogue and not merely an echo chamber of like-minded people who see the world through the same lens.

Ya can’t have it all, because all is an illusion

One of the greatest blessings I have had in my life was to know many women we would call senior citizens, some were family members like my beloved Granny and others were friends I made on my own. For some reason even as a child I enjoyed sitting around listening to older women talk, I suspect that was the universe preparing me for the fact that by the time I was really a grown woman, all these wonderful women would no longer be earth side. The universe made sure I got a heavy dose of elder wisdom in my late teens to mid-twenties and thankfully so much of what these women shared with me has stayed with me.

Another blessing granted most days I don’t see it as a blessing is losing my mom early in life; after all I would rather have her here. Yet between the many women who helped raise me and the death of my mother, I know that our time on this rock is short. Sure, we may get 70-90 years but in the grand scheme of things, our time here is just a blip. It was with that knowledge in my early 30’s that I changed my life plan not long after my mom’s death from reaching arbitrary goals on a list that I thought I had to accomplish to focusing on the shit that really matters to me. In the end my mom’s professional choices and life didn’t matter to me once she was gone but the moments and times we shared together are the memories I hold tenderly and share with my own kids. Funny thing is when we talk about my mom, her professional life never comes up.

When I came across The Atlantic piece on “Having it all” that is making the rounds, I almost skipped it, but I am glad that I read it. First off, how many times do we have to hear privileged women complaining that they can’t/don’t have it all? Don’t get me wrong, as a mom who has a job outside of the home in addition to the one in the house, I know it’s a constant juggling act. We do need a culture that is more attuned to modern day living and that doesn’t assume there is an adult at home that can grab the kids from school at 2:30pm. Granted the idea of making school days longer to accommodate our work days is scary to me. How about we flip that around…make the work day line up with the school day? After all how many hours at work are wasted in pointless meetings that frankly could be conducted using modern day technology?

What I really want to say though, why are we still searching to have it all? The truth is no one has it all. Not even men who many of us see as having greater flexibility to put their careers first. Spend some time with an old guy who put his career first when he is getting closer to the end of his life and more times than not you will meet a man with grave regrets. A man who realizes being the company man wasn’t worth what he ultimately gave up, connection to his family, friends and the stuff he thought he would eventually make time for. Hell, talk to anyone whose time is limited on this rock and one common theme you will hear is, I wish I would have made time for what was really important. (Most often, what was important was the family) No one ever wishes they had worked more. Death has visited my life more times than anyone at 39 should ever have to bear and I always hear the same thing.

Work is good, it can feed our souls as well as put much needed money in our pockets but rather than living to work, I would rather work to live. I want a world that values that desire, one that allows all parents to be a part of their kids’ lives as much as they desire without being forced to ever choose work over family. If we can ever get our collective heads out of our asses and recognize that work is only one part of living life, I suspect or at least hope that having it all will have value for all of us, not just some of us as it currently stands.  That we will have a world that knows having it all is not even feasible but instead balance that allows us all to live well.