Against Work-Life Balance

Parlour, Jan. 10, 2013

“Why should I let the toad work / Squat on my life?” asked the poet Philip Larkin in 1954. Since then, the notion that work and life are more or less antithetical – that work interferes with our enjoyment of “real”, personal or family life – has become entrenched. It has also come to be associated with women, especially mothers. “Work-life balance”, a term coined in the 1970s and popularized in the 80s and 90s, is now assumed to be the ideal to which all working mothers aspire.

I have problems with “work-life balance”. The first, which I won’t dwell on but will simply point out, is that it’s a fallacy: Work can’t be weighed against life, because it’s such a big part of it.

Also, contra Larkin, work is not mere drudgery. At least in affluent countries, many of us regard our work as purposeful and our working selves as our authentic, even our best, selves. We would not necessarily prefer to be at home, with its own drudgery of patching drywall and changing diapers.

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