Thursday, September 21, 2006

Where did the day go?

A letter in The Observer (see the one from Moira Davies here) took Ruth Kelly to task for her comments on 'work-life balance' and her apparent determination to put her family before her job as a Cabinet Minister. A difficult area, but I wonder if the chief executive of a FTSE 100 company would get away with telling their shareholders that they put family life before the firm's success? Isn't the cliché that top people "resign to spend more time with the family"? That is, they make choices at different parts of their life course.

Ms Davies' letter also highlighted the unacknowledged costs of 'flexible' working practices such as job sharing, part time work, home-working and flexible hours - not least in the burden of responsibility implicitly transferred to those that do not take advantage of these practices.

This all came to mind because it is 'Diversity Week' at my employer and I want to speak up for a marginalised group - the hard-working full-timers that backfill for, and work around, flexibly working colleagues. I'm well aware of the arguments for work-life balance policies (see this Canadian government case) and can see the case. What I don't like is the denial about the inefficiency, costs and burden-shifting that come with them. But most of all, I think we should understand time use much better and have insights into where our time goes and how paid work, unpaid work and leisure are distributed in society and how this is changing.

Time use surveys
can tell us much about what is going on in people's lives and how they use the fixed amount of time available each week - some links to explore in depth overview / National Statistics page / fascinating seminar / another fascinating seminar. The charts above are adapted from Jonathan Gershuny of the Institute for Social and Economic Research. Some findings: on average we do less work than in the past, but we are feeling busier; social class gradients in working time have reversed (richer people used to work less but now work more than poorer people); men and women have gradually converged towards equal leisure time and are moving to a more even balance between paid and unpaid work. Some interesting reading from Gershuny below:

3 comments:

Ian Ball said...

As another full-time "normal" worker I totally agree with this very insightful piece.

Anonymous said...

I don't happen to think Ruth Kelly is a good example of a woman who successfully balances a high flying career with home and family life. But there are plenty of women - and indeed men - who do.

The phrase 'I am leaving my job to spend more time with my family' is rarely used by people who are actually going to spend more time with loved ones. In the case of many politicians and business leaders it is because they have messed up their careers and want to save face.

The problem with many senior politicians and company directors is that they have lost touch with reality. They are so caught up with their work that they have forgotten what it means to have dependents - children or older relatives.

Its also a myth that people who 'work from home' are somehow slackers. In fact you will find that they are often more productive when not distracted by emails or phone calls and end up working longer hours.

Anonymous said...

I agree about Ruth Kelly's conflicts. I think that real attention to the family isn't really compatible with simultaneously holding down a job at the very top level of government or business, and that it would be better to spend different periods of life doing different things well sequentially. Where there are high flyers doing well in their career with a young family, you'll usually find a willing spouse or paid help standing behind the arrangement with child care or low-skilled work.

Would Ruth Kelly really suffer professionally in the long run if she took a career break to give her four young kids her full attention, rather than trying to work and put them first?

I agree about some home workers some of the time. But it opens lots of scope for scams for people that want to abuse the flexibility. And there are plenty of them.

EM