24 March 2021

Vox: “The problem is work”

It was also around this time that the 40-hour workweek became part of American labor law. Previously, workweeks in many jobs were much longer — but even though 40 hours was an improvement, it wasn’t based on what actually made sense for people with families or other responsibilities outside work.

Instead, it was based on the idea that the worker was a man and that the worker had a woman who was doing the reproductive labor in the home full time, Kathi Weeks, a feminist political theorist and the author of the book The Problem with Work, told Vox. This wasn’t true even at the time, of course — not for people of color, and not for most working-class families. But the fiction of a woman at home taking care of kids and other family members was the only way to make the idea of a 40-hour workweek tenable. If every worker was imagined to be doing all of this labor of caring for children and the elderly, Weeks said, policymakers wouldn’t have imagined that 40 hours a week is a reasonable standard of full time.

Untenable as it was, the 40-hour workweek just got longer as time went on. With the advent of technologies like smartphones and email, 9 to 5 became 24/7 — the ideal worker was available “any time, day or night”, Davies said, still with no family obligations or anything to distract from their “single-minded devotion to the employer”. Today, the average American works more hours in a year than the average worker in any other similarly wealthy nation.

And that ideal didn’t change when more women started entering corporate jobs, making families with two working parents more common across the middle class. Workers were still expected to give everything to work and to keep their families largely invisible — which led to high levels of stress, especially among working moms, long before the pandemic began.

Anna North

This issue is possibly not as dire here in Romania or in Europe in general, due to better protections for employees, but it is a widespread issue nonetheless. I have thought about it multiple times since the start of the pandemic, but for me the underlying cause is not ‘work’ per se, but how our society has evolved in recent decades to make us more interconnected and more reliant on support structures around us. Individuals have become increasingly specialized to perform certain tasks, while entrusting the rest to other people and institutions.

Mother working from home alongside her son attending school remotely
A mother working from home sits alongside her son attending school remotely in Miami, Florida. Jayme Gershen/Bloomberg/Getty Images

A century ago, a rural family may have been relatively self-sustained, producing some of their food and clothes and trading for the rest, doing laundry, raising dozens of children, taking care of the elderly, and so on. Today much of the population lives in cities and metropolis, most of us buy our food either from supermarkets or restaurants, parents rely on kindergartens and schools to educate their children, children rely on nursing homes to take care of their aging parents. Most of these developments have been overwhelmingly positive: children can get much better education and explore more varied life paths, everyone has better health care, and I am sure no-one misses doing laundry by hand instead of in a washing machine.

While the pandemic may have accelerated some trends in digitalization and logistic, in some ways it has also turned back the clock decades, suddenly disrupting social structures that we have taken for granted and forcing families to live together and manage on their own like they have not done for years. Lacking the experience, and frankly the time to juggle work responsibilities and childcare, no wonder most parents are struggling.

The demographic transition from rural to urban has also meant that different generations of the same family rarely live together anymore. As young adults, many move out of their parents’ house seeking independence, maybe even to a bigger city in search of social life and employment opportunities. When they become parents, their parents no longer live close enough to help raising children, another factor that makes childcare harder during a pandemic – although since the elderly are most at risk from this virus, this time around it is better to keep them safe from possible infections from their grandchildren.

Finding solutions is unfortunately not easy, but more flexible work schedules, as well as shorter workweeks would certainly be a start.

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