Who has Time Anymore?

We say it now; did our parents say it back then, too? My wife makes some of her living monitoring online discussions, and one of the conversations she has been reading lately has been about how women's contradictions and conundrums have changed -- how today's overwhelmed-ness compares with yesterday's ennui. If one stays at home, one feels the pangs of unexplored career, of creative contributions that one might have made... if one goes out and works, one sees the kids for forty minutes at the beginning and end of the day. "The Supermom Syndrome" -- "Wanting to Have it All" -- the talk shows have been doing these themes for years.

In fact, women of our parents' generation (we're in our early 40s) were placed in an impossible position. Society's model for them, of course, was the Donna Reed/June Cleaver homemaker. They seemed to have all the advantages, and yet lived a daily grind that drove them (more often than we would like to admit) slowly insane. Protected from the brunt of professional competition, they were free to develop their tender, nurturing, "feminine" qualities that were said to make for the loving, caring American home. Their husbands, assured of spousal support, their shirts pressed, their floors polished, their children loved, hugged, nourished and schooled, were free to sharpen their wits and skills for the professional arena. And all too often, the men grew callous and remote, while the women grew timid and paranoid.

But what else could be done? It was the only sensible way for all but the bravest or most fortunate to organize their lives (or try to, anyway). Making ends meet demanded a full-time career; men earned more in the marketplace than women. Successful competition demanded time and concentration; breadwinners could not afford to be bothered with time-consuming matters like childrearing or laundry; they barely had time to mow the lawn on the weekends. June and Donna, for their parts, spent their adult lives in near-complete ignorance of their husbands' challenges, concerns or conquests. This put a horrendous strain on communication, of course, for she knew as little of what it took to make it Out There as he took time to see now wearisome, how numbing to the spirit, were the myriad things she did, with so few complaints, In Here.

It quietly drove the Moms and the Dads crazy. But it's not like that any more.

Nowadays, both parents work full-time careers, and the children are raised, for the most part, by hired help.

Now, before we go any further, let's put aside the silly notion that "the women's movement" is somehow to blame for this. Certainly the Feminist movement played a role in shaping today's conceptions of family and professional lives for men and women. Slowly, more and more women came to understand that they did not have to be driven insane by the stultifying expectations of others; that they could explore other ways to live. But we cannot lay blame for the Supermom syndrome on the women's libbers; the problem is much more basic than that.

It has much more to do with the how we have organized the activity of competition in the professional sphere of life. In order to meaningfully participate in the labor market -- in order to have, in other words, a career -- one is expected to work on a full-time basis. This is true at nearly all levels; even retail clerks or delivery drivers cannot generally get health insurance or other benefits unless they are full time. On the "professional" level, of course, the forty-hour week is just the beginning; the keener the competition, the longer and more focused one's workday has to be. There's no way around it: our society's idea of career success necessitates having a full-time support team at home! Can one successfully compete, Out There, and still have time to press one's shirts, or educate one's children? Therein lies the genesis of Supermom and Superdad: the new, postmodern way to be driven crazy.

The notion that for a career to be successful it must be pursued full- (or more likely, over-) time is so entrenched that it sounds absurd to question it. We think that the personal and social costs simply must be borne, because -- what else is there? Things are tough all over. But every now and then we must wonder -- don't we? -- what it is all for. We mangle our lives into odd shapes and alienate our children and each other, for what? To keep that "career-track" job -- because if we don't, we can be damn sure that someone else is waiting in line to take it.

The system is so well established that we forget its roots in the competition of laborers for jobs -- and that under such circumstances, employers have great latitude to arrange things for their own ease and profitability. If it benefits them for their workers in, say, the advertising or financial service fields to work crushingly long hours, then that's just what they will do. Others will gladly take their place if they have a problem with it. Conversely, if it benefits Sprawl-mart or some such establishment to hire only part-time workers to avoid the burdensome cost of health insurance, then that's who'll be hired. Such jobs are not, of course, considered to be "careers", but they're definitely better than nothing.

Incidentally, we hear from time to time about the revisions to macro-economic beancounting necessitated by the "market-izing" of tasks that were once done for free by Donna Reed and June Cleaver. When people pay for child-care, laundry, cooking, cleaning, etc., the wages paid for these skills are added to the overall total of goods and services provided in the economy (the GDP, in other words). So does this mean that our economy grew because the daughters of Donna and June were too busy to do these household tasks and had to hire out?

Well, to be sure, the economy grew. Even before we add in the day-care and restaurant workers' salaries, we observe that both Dad and Mom are out there in the labor market being pretty near twice as productive and competitive as ol' Dad was back in the fifties; after all, they're both working career-track jobs! But, the brutal fact of the matter is that they are both working career-track jobs in order to enjoy just about the same material standard of living that their parents had back then on only one salary! It cannot be that labor's productivity has halved in one generation's time; in fact, labor's productivity has increased considerably. There can be, then, only be one explanation: labor's real wages have precipitously dropped.

No, we cannot blame the Feminist movement for the stresses and contradictions of reconciling our personal and professional lives. The feminists saw society stunting and wounding itself by pressing both women and men into dehumanizing sex-roles, and strove to articulate a new freedom for everyone. But, it is harder and harder to realize one's freedom, when one must work more and more hours just to make ends meet. At some point it becomes impossible -- as I said -- for all except the very brave and the very fortunate.

Considering the human cost of this very difficult way of organizing people's economic lives, society had really better be using its resources to the fullest. Society really owes us that. There had really better not be sizeable opportunities to which workers and entrepreneurs are being denied. There really had better not be a far more just, more efficient way of arranging economic policy, whose very existence has been intentionally hidden from us by generations of "experts".

But, of course, all those things are true. Are we mad as hell yet?

Lindy Davies, July 23, 2001

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