Posted by: emjb | July 21, 2007

Working to live to work to….what?

I’m the kind of geeky person who reads sci-fi, and sociology and anthropology and history, all the kinds of books that discuss how people are, why they are, what they could be or couldn’t be. Trying to figure out why things are this way, and what could possibly make them better.

At the bottom of it, politics is about this too. Your personal political beliefs aren’t just about “government should do/not do X,” they’re about what you think human beings are. What you think they’re capable of. Or not. Maybe your politics is really just a survey of what you’re cynical about, and what idealism you have left.

Anyway, on this blog I write quite a bit about how unsatisfactory the choices are that most human beings seem to have. For me, privileged white gal that I am, that translates into choking off some things that would make me happy in order to have what I must to survive. I don’t mean vacations to Paris, necessarily, so much as I mean a more satisfying life, that lets me combine my work with the rest of what I do, that gives me room to live.

Work and the rest of my life fight each other, and it seems like such a stupid setup. For one thing, I could so easily do the kind of work I do in a way that lets me have more free time, without losing any productivity, if the ass-in-seats mentality weren’t so entrenched. There is no logical reason to care how many hours in a given day I work on project X, provided it comes in on time; in fact, if I could work from home, or come in a few days a week, my employer could presumably save money on the power and water I don’t use and the building wear and tear I don’t cause. I could afford better childcare, I could spend less on gas, I could deal with real-life hassles like going to the bank or doing laundry or having a sick child without having to disrupt other people’s schedules.

But work is work, and life is life, and in our culture, we seem to think the two should never mix; that people would become sloppy and fail to do a good job without constant supervision. As though they don’t do that now in their little gray cubicles, if that’s how they’re inclined.

The system could change; we have the technology now. The system doesn’t change because it’s about control, and who has the power over whom, and people in charge seldom want to give up even pointless displays of power. Our corporate brains are still in the 19th century, and we are all still like Bob Cratchit, chained to our desks in a miserable office on Christmas Eve so that the boss can feel like he’s properly in charge.

Anyway, what I was talking about before was that human beings have this strange idea that whatever arrangements we already have for the way people live cannot change. Despite historical evidence to the contrary, despite speculations by many many writers about how we could live differently and still thrive. What is frustrating is to read something (like the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson) and see how they’ve fleshed out these concepts, and know that things probably aren’t going to change soon enough to make your life better. Not for any good reason, but because people cling to their assumptions long past the expiration date. And they use those outdated assumptions to vote with, too; they mock people who ask “why can’t it be better? Why can’t we live better?” like birds trained never to leave their cages.

I read blogs of people who live outside the mainstream, and oh, I’m jealous. But also aware that they are either accepting a lot of stress and poverty for doing it, or have more resources to cushion letting go of their fulltime jobs, teaching kids at home if they want to, thumbing their nose at the system. It’s not a luxury I have had, or am likely to have. And that has had a really profound effect on what I’ve done with my life, and what I can do with it. I’ve had to make choices that keep me awake at night because I’m filled with anger and regret. I’ve had to stare down the years that I have left and wonder if it will get better, because many days, I’m not too optimistic.

I admit it; I’m greedy. Not for things, but for freedoms, for a little more air. For a chance to do good work without chains or cages being necessary. For not having to choose between the cage and the poorhouse.



  1. Well, Grabapple, I second your Crabapple. I’ve groused about this as well in my blog.
    I don’t want things, I want freedom of choice. I want to be home with my son instead of working the 9-5 (in my case 8-4:30). After that, my second choice is to work from home, which I could easily do. But I work for a state agency, and it’s even more of a dinosaur than corporate america. Plus, I live in the southeast, which is particularly not progressive. Asking to telecommute is almost equal to saying, “no, I don’t accept Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior.” It’s sacriledge. There is no trust (or respect) of worker bees, and control is paramount in the Bible Belt.
    Every day I struggle with quality of life issues, like you. Every day, I examine the same questions you do. I’m not any closer.
    I will say that every day I also look for solutions. For example, I put an ad in Craigslist announcing my services as a personal assistant/housekeeper, if the potential employer would let me bring my kid to work. I’ve got a Master’s in Health Journalism. Yep. I’m that hard up to find the balance. But that probably won’t work because my back is injured and we need health benefits, and currently, I am the supplier of benefits for my family.
    Have you considered other work options? The answer is probably yes.
    By the way, I read the Mars Trilogy ages ago. I can’t remember what you are referring to, I’ll have to go take a peek.

  2. It’s in Blue Mars, when they’re formalizing the Martian government, and have lots of discussions about why quality of life issues (housing, healthcare, etc.) should be in the constitution, as well as economic issues like taxes. Pretty much parts of socialism, a word that will get you burned at the stake in most of the U.S. Robinson has one of his characters, who is being accused of socialism, basically issue a large smackdown on the order of “quit trying to scare us with bogeymen, socialism as a system never truly existed on Earth anyway, and taking some of its ideas makes sense if they work.”

  3. I totally understand what you are saying about work/life balance. I had to fight to work 2 days a week from home – only got to do it because I threatened to quit if they didn’t work with me and they deemed me valuable enough at the time to work with me. My biggest fear right now is that my new boss will change that. My old boss used to say things all the time like “I don’t know why you want to work from home anyway.” which I figured just showed exactly how much “balance” she had. It’s like I’m seen as not being as gung ho or as “into” work if I work from home. I’ve always contended that I get more done since I don’t start the day out with a stressful 1 hour drive through Dallas traffic when I work from home. I wish companies would allow telecommuting a lot because I think it is great and just wish I got to do it everyday!

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