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Work / Life
Not long ago, a journalist I know asked me to talk to her about “work-life balance”: she was writing a piece on the subject and wanted a philosophical angle. If she had known me better, she might have picked someone else. I am a stereotypical workaholic, notoriously bad at drawing boundaries, and notoriously good at making myself feel overwhelmed. But at least this means I know the enemy…
My first reaction to the question was another stereotype: the philosopher who says “It all depends on what you mean.” If we’re discussing “work-life balance,” we need to define our terms. What is “work”? And if that seems too easy, what is “life”? (The chaser: what is “balance”?)
It’s tempting to equate “work” with what has to be done, even though we wish it didn’t: with activities that have “ameliorative value,” solving problems or meeting needs we would rather do without. The downside of work like this is that, the more time we devote to it, the harder it is to maintain our grip on what makes life worth living in the first place. If the best we can do is to mitigate what is bad, why bother to live life at all? Better, or no worse, not to be born. There have to be activities that make life positively good: ones that have what I’ve called “existential value,” a value that does not come from meeting regrettable needs. Think of the the value of art, of games, of spending time with family and friends.
There are philosophical depths here—I wrote about them in a chapter of Midlife—but I don’t think they’re quite what we intend when we talk about work-life balance. That’s for three reasons.
One is that the ideal “balance” between amelioration and existential value would be all existential: we would have no needs that we regret. (This is how Aristotle imagines the best life in Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics.)
The second is that the tyranny of the ameliorative is as much a problem in our non-work lives as it is at work: the challenge of having younger kids or aging parents, or both, is that they generate a flood of problems that need to be addressed, consuming more and more of life. It’s all worthwhile—but this can’t be all there is! The difficulty is real, but it’s not exactly what we think of when we think of work-life balance.
The third reason is that some of us are lucky enough to find work that has existential value—and yet we struggle to balance our lives.
When we aim for “work-life balance,” then, I don’t think we’re tracking a deep distinction in the value of activities, but something more superficial—though its effects are profound—which is the balance between paid work and everything else. Our problem is that, under pressures both economic and social, the activities for which we’re paid expand to fill our lives. These activities come to define us: our job is what we cite when someone asks us what we are—rather than saying “I am human; nothing human is alien to me.” To fail at work is to be a failure. No wonder we invest so much of ourselves in what we do for money.
This tendency is politically damaging: it distorts the significance of unpaid labour, often gendered, often care work. And it is personally damaging, too. A danger of “work-life imbalance” is to allow oneself to be defined by a single narrative, and so to miss out on the amplitude of life, the diversity of things—activities, relationships, experiences—that make it good, when it is. The balance we need is not just between work and life, but within life itself. You don’t solve the problem of work-life balance if you switch from being consumed by your job to being consumed by something else: parenthood, say, or a hobby that devours you.
Balance, then, is not just about paid work. It’s about refusing to interpret yourself in simple, singular terms. It’s about containing multitudes; finding enough in your life worth wanting, and making time for it; about the challenge of being fully present for what you care about, in the teeth of constant distraction.
Being efficient and organized may help, as does building firewalls—times without one’s phone or email or internet access—but the empty inbox is a myth. We have to allow for imperfection in each activity, “work” or “life,” in order to make space for others.
At one level, the problem of work-life is structural. The question why we work so hard—not the 15-hour weeks predicted for his grandchildren by the economist J. M. Keynes—belongs to political economy, not self-help. It’s hard to escape the iron cage alone.
But the problem has a deeper level, too. For there’s a danger, and an irony, in striving to “optimize” our lives. The answers to the problem of work-life balance are all imperfect and accepting that is part of the (non-)solution. We need to minimize the time we spend on ameliorative work, pursuing existential value—but we can’t neglect the needs for which we are responsible. We should resist the pressure to build our lives around one all-consuming end—but we can’t pretend that in diversifying, we’ll do justice to all that matters. We won’t.
At root, the problem of balance in life is “value pluralism”: the excess of things worth wanting. And while it can feel oppressive, this abundance—as opposed to the magnification of paid work—isn’t something we should finally regret. The alternative is a world in monochrome. To fight against the plurality of values is to shrink our lives by subordinating them to a single, unified goal: the perfect balance. The best we can do is to forget about the best and to welcome lives that are messy, incoherent, and good enough.