n an old cartoon by the American Roz Chast, a waiter approaches a woman with food on her plate. “Are you still working on that?” “No, in fact, I’m completely exhausted
,” she replies. “Maybe if you wrap it up, I can finish working on it at home.” The title is Another Day In The Salt Mines. The idea that eating a delicious meal – cooked by someone else! – constitutes work remains largely confined to the US, mercifully. But the general enthusiasm for describing things as work is more widespread. Marriage, we’re endlessly informed by relationship gurus and divorcing celebrities, is work. Parenting is “the hardest job in the world”. Even leisure has been remade in the image of work, as we strive to reach 10,000 daily steps on our wearable fitness monitors; or check off experience after experience on “bucket lists” – a form of to-do list you’re not even permitted the pleasure of moaning about, because they’re meant to be fun.
In recent decades, of course, one major reason for defining more things as work has been to call attention to burdens that still fall disproportionately on women – cooking, toddler-chasing, caring for ageing relatives – and that are no less arduous, or crucial to the economy, simply because they’re unpaid. But as theology professor Jonathan Malesic wrote recently in the New Republic, there’s a dark side even to that worthy goal: in extending the logic of the workplace to life outside it, we implicitly concede that workers are the only kind of people worth valuing. “If everything is work,” Malesic writes, “then talk of work/life balance is a sham.” And we start judging parents, partners and others by their work ethic. “We shame mothers who don’t perform ‘best practices’ like breastfeeding, or initiating skin-to-skin contact with their child within seconds of birth,” he says, while the childless are seen as self-indulgent slackers.
The idea of “emotional labour” is an intriguing case in point. In the 1980s this useful phrase, coined by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild, referred to the exhausting requirement faced by people in certain jobs – again, usually women – to act smiley or solicitous, however they felt inside. But in the past few years, it’s been popularised to include, say, the “job” of listening to your spouse or friend unburden themselves of their problems. It’s undoubtedly sexist when men take it for granted that women will listen obligingly while they moan. But isn’t it rather strange to characterise the underlying act – listening to someone you love – as an imposition from which you’d rather be free? If something so fundamental to a relationship counts as work, it’s hard to imagine what wouldn’t.
It’s hard to disagree with Malesic that, in an ideal world, we’d value all these interpersonal activities – and introduce policies permitting plenty of time for them – not because they’re jobs, but just because they matter. Things surely shouldn’t need to be work, and people shouldn’t need to be hard workers, in order to count.
Excerpt from The Guardian, read the full article here