Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article says that, for women, work-life balance is a myth. Unless you’re super-rich, super-lucky or have a super-husband, focusing on your career will inevitably come at the expense of your family, and focusing on your family will inevitably hurt your career.
The minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be—at least not with a child experiencing a rocky adolescence. I realized what should have perhaps been obvious: having it all, at least for me, depended almost entirely on what type of job I had. The flip side is the harder truth: having it all was not possible in many types of jobs, including high government office—at least not for very long.
It’s a good article, but since Slaughter is examining the structures that make ‘work-life’ an oxymoron in America, I wondered why she didn’t spend any time examining other countries. I spent the whole article going ‘It doesn’t have to be like this!’
I’ve lived in Sydney, London, Copenhagen and Berlin, and working culture is the strongest difference I’ve seen. People in Denmark leave the office at 3pm to pick up their kids, and they tell their colleagues ‘I have to leave at 3pm to pick up my kids’. People in Germany turn down early-morning and weekend meetings by saying ‘that’s too early’ or ‘that’s a weekend.’
This is what having workers’ rights looks like.
I’m not saying Northern Europe is perfect, or that no one works overtime because socialism. But this ‘culture’ of limiting work to daylight hours is the result of specific, deliberate national policies that protect holidays, pay for maternity leave, provide daycare and mandate overtime pay. On every objective measure of work-life balance, Northern Europe does better than the US.
Americans only lament the difficulty of women being able to ‘have it all’ because we’ve already accepted that men can’t. ‘Working’ in America means long hours beholden to the caprice of a superior who can fire you at any time, leaving you not only without a salary, but without healthcare. Americans have told themselves not only that this is a just and acceptable state of affairs, but that if they fail to raise a family under these conditions, it is the individual, not the economy, that has failed.
It’s about time America started directing its prosperity toward its citizens rather than its landlords. Until America starts to define work as a limited period rather than an open obligation, it’s not just women who can’t have it all, it’s everyone.