Saturday, December 3, 2011


This post is reproduced from a May 2009 entry on my private blog, Zucchinis in Bikinis. I've been re-travelling these thought paths recently and getting myself into a bit of a state about our decision that I will re-enter the workforce next year if I can find a suitable position.

At the time I wrote this, I was on maternity leave from my part-time job, from which I resigned in December 2010. My youngest child was 11 weeks old, I was suffering from nerve damage in my spine, I was unwell and sleep deprived. Withall, I still seemed to have a less muddy vision of my relationship to paid work than I do now.

Re-reading this piece helped me to remember the truth that was burning brightly for me 2.5 years ago, and realise that not working is neither an evil nor necessarily a problem for me. I can wait for the right job in the right time fraction, because this is not what my life is about, and the family and community and writing work I do is not marking time, it is the spirit and the core of my life. I feel a lot better now and clearer in my job-seeking paramters.

I hope you like it!

Following a link from the always-excellent Casaubon's Book, I came across this article by Barbara Ehrenreich. Drily entitled "Trying to Find a Job is Not a Job", this piece takes aim at the notion that the newly unemployed have an obligation - and indeed no other option - than to treat their job searching efforts as seriously, all-consumingly and committedly as (one presumes) they did their former careers. In the article, Ehrenreich points out the absurdities that this attitude engenders, from blue-collar workers endlessly retraining for illusory new skilled positions, to white-collar workers creating faux "bosses" to whom they "report" on their job-searching "work".

The ideas that underlie this attitude, it seems to me, are threefold:
1. Not having paid employment is the greatest evil imaginable
2. Persistence and application to the task will inevitably result in the landing of a new, desirable job
3. There are always jobs available for those with the right skills and attitude
2 and 3 are, of course, integrally linked, and are also bundled up with the cheerful and familiar age-old theme of blaming the unfortunate for their misfortune (ie. if you are unemployed for long, it must because you are doing SOMETHING wrong).

I agree with Ehrenreich that the purpose of the rhetoric around job-searching is essentially social control - creating a passive, "busy" corpus of unemployed rather than a rageful, bored army who have time and space to look up and see the writing on the wall. I also think that ideas 2 and 3 are the engine that drives this relentless personalisation - blaming the individual - for what may be, and often are, the effects of broader and more powerful trends.

However, what interests me more is unpacking the embedded notions that underlie the first idea. The concept that paid work is an ultimate good, and therefore, the lack of it an inherent evil, is one that deserves to be examined, not simply accepted. Of course people need resources to live, and in a modern capitalist economy, for "resources" you can read "money or access to it". I'm not suggesting that anyone can (or should even attempt to) live a cashless existence, although that said, I personally know of one couple that does this very thing, and two other families that are close to it. (However, in those cases, they each own another valuable resource - arable and cultivated land, and farm animals - free of debt, thanks to inheritance. Not the common scenario!)

What I'm wondering, though, is whether this global financial crisis and the resulting unemployment might not force a fruitful re-evaluation of the idea that we all need LOTS of cash, and that every adult in a household MUST aim to be part of the cash economy at all times. There are so many, many ways to be productive and contributive to the overall economy of a family, a household, a community, a society. Working for a wage is one of them, and in most cases, a necessary one for at least some of the people, some of the time. But if you are suddenly unable to bring home a wage, is running madly like a rat on a treadmill in order to obtain a job, ANY job, necessarily your only or even best option? Could the time be better spent in the extra work that you'll be freed to do in the unpaid silent economy of home, community and society, maybe reducing your need for high loads of cash along the way (ie by cooking more, growing some food, being able to shop more strategically etc). Communities and families rely anyway on unpaid labour to be sustained; it might be a gentler, kinder world if less people were juggling those tasks with the cash-based task of bringing home the bacon.

In our own case, we've given this a lot of thought of late. We are, granted, in a privileged position to be having these thoughts in the context of two stable, relatively unthreatened jobs (you never know what the future may bring, but the odds of either of us facing redundancy in the foreseeable future appear slim). Moreover, my husband is well paid, and we are relatively comfortably geared in terms of debt (carrying a very manageable mortgage and little else). But even though we have two paid jobs, I work mine in a very-much-less than fulltime arrangement, and I work from home (right now, of course, I'm on maternity leave, but won't be later in the year). At the moment, there is widespread social acceptance of this, as I have three children aged under 6, the youngest of whom is not quite 11 weeks old.

However, the prevalent impression appears to be that when my children are older, I'll work more - possibly fulltime - and what's more, that I'll want to do so, and need to do so, financially and personally. I'm starting to think, though, that I won't; that, in fact, we can live a freer and fuller life by keeping our dependence on cash at the level it's at now or even reducing it, and leaving time to build identities that aren't completely bound up with the paycheck. I salute my husband for his efforts in providing our family with a primary income, and I'll never underestimate the importance or necessity of it; but I also think that what I do, and can do, outside of the cash economy is valuable, the parenting and householding and volunteering and thinking creatively about how to live our lives. Of course, at the moment, the day to day parenting and nurturing is the overwhelming preponderance and joy of my time, but it will not ever be thus, and as the kids grow and become more independent, I want to be able to grow our family situation with them, to creatively rekey our lives every now and then, and live a life that's not in chains to the almighty dollar.

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