Oh, to hell with work/life balance

Wouldn’t it be nice to get your work life back into balance? (This, my friends, is known as the hook. You read it on the subway, see it on the tele, hear it on the old time radio, and it gets ya.)

Now that you’re grabbed: These days, oh these days, my friends, people just won’t stop talking about “work/life balance,” usually with the implication that things are tipping too far in one direction or another. When the scale goes too much in the work direction, then people say oh geez ya know so-and-so’s just a Workaholic but what are you gonna do more potato salad? When it goes too far in the other direction, they say, brief-casedly, that so-and-so had better get his priorities straight or (in hushed whispers) so-and-so’s just taking some time off or (with an imperceptible sneer of ripely righteous self-love) so-and-so’s decided to be a stay-at-home mom. Oh for shame.

Well, I’ve got some very very good news for you, some awfully, cheerfully, splendiferously excellent news to share with each and every one of you: it’s that the conceit of the work/life balance is patently all wrong, all off from the start, so there’s no need, really, really and truly and honestly, to get all worked up about it or bent out of shape over it, no need either to re-jigger the scale or tinker the clock or fritter the fritters, and no use in getting back to that good ole halcyon sense of idyllically pastoral e-qui-li-bri-yum.

Now, after this piece of especially good news, I’ve got some even better news: and it’s that you can do whatever you’d like with the whole kit and caboodle. Hold a seance perchance and urge the balance to—-be gone! Or try making a Burning Man Work Life toilette and then lighting it all on fire and then watching it burn (“we don’t need no water, let the…”) with friends while everyone hums so long, farewell, until…

Bum ba da ba bum bum.

And now a brief interlude on philosophy for kids. Whoa, did you see that guy doing the bicep curls? I don’t know about you, but I did the only appropriate thing. I stood up and pumped my fist in the air in utter glee.

Yes, my friends, let’s hear IT for the boy.

Oh, right, back to the real nonsense… So I guess you’re looking for reasons why this work/life balance stuff is total bosh. Is that what you’ve come for? And you say you want good reasons to boot. So that’s what this philosophizing is all about. Eh? Having good reasons for saying or doing something or other. Examining stuff. Humpf.

Well, I was just sayin’ (as we used to say, by way of exculpation, when I was a kid after we did a baldly, unmistakenly cruel thing, “Well, I was just sayin’…’“) but I’ll take a crack or two at the reasoning behind just sayin’.

To begin with (and now I’m going in for the big voice), the conceit assumes that work is one kind of activity (cash nexus stuff, mum) and life (otium, in a word) quite another. So you’ve got your negotium over here and your otium over there. Secondly, it presumes that there’s a stable social world which is neatly divided into value spheres: most notably, the intimate sphere of the family and the economic sphere which is plumped all into civil society. The idear seems to be that you work over here in this Organization but then come home over there in that House. Just so we’re clear: In one venue, you do your commerce: you exchange, transact, give and take among strangers. In another, you raise your kids up right and have sex with your spouse till the tedium sets in. Neat and tidy this social order. Cleaved-in-two this social self. (Superbly, un-integritas, by the by.)

And then what happened is that the BlackBerry came along and did a number on it all. Let’s hear it for the boys.

Wendell Berry says that the tractor essentially changed modern farming for good. Before, sustainable practices, crop rotation, careful stewardship. After, monocropping, inputs, outputs, soil erosion. Farm into pharm. Similarly, the BlackBerry both ushered in a new social moment and piggybacked on a changing social order. That and organizations got hollowed out, consulting firms sprung forth, startups rained in the sun, the internet laid down new tracks, the home kitchen doubled as the break room and the conference room, the coffee shop got made over into IT HQ, and–in a word–we all went and got “beyond the cubicle.”

Admittedly, this explanation is no more than partial–loose scraps torn out of a book I’ve neither written nor read nor skimmed about the changing face of modern work life. The point, though–to coin a phrase, my droogies–is as clear as an azure blue sky: to wit, that the value spheres have lost their hard edges, technology has enmeshed us all in work and home and socializing and four squaring, yet our language, the conceptual schema we still use–and this, by the by, we see throughout transitions in world history–continues to lag frightfully behind our nascent social practices. So that we cling–no, not to guns, by God–but to ideals, Mr. Obama–to ideals of a good life that are no longer available to you or me or you and me nor applicable to the lives we actually lead. No squaring this conception with our muddy boots on the ground.

Here is your reason for (i) feeling a damned lot of strife much of the time because, my friends, you’re jamming these old conceptions into an uncubbyhole-fittable way of life and so (b) you rusheth headlong (only fools, sayeth the sagacious Alexander Potpourri) into the arms of the self-help cottage industry which is more than willing to take the hard-earned money you make from your “unbalanced” work/life. Well, my friends, I assure you that that ain’t right.

The note I have in my left hand is actually a golden ticket. I’ve gotta golden… It says–just hold on a tick, let me read what it says, big voice–“Perhaps the trouble lies in key part with your conception of balance. Perhaps if you let go of that, you’ll have plenty of room–we’re talking McMansiony ample–for a new conception of a good life.”

No, dammit, not the career. No, not the one-off project. Yes, something like the lifework.

5 thoughts on “Oh, to hell with work/life balance

  1. You know I’ve had to turn my internet off (as I’m about to do in a moment) just so that I’d stop playing the damn video. I mean the background music… The home video quality… The lyrics: “Maybe he’s no Romeo…” And during my 6.8 mile run the song only went out of my head after I heard someone singing Bob Dylan around one of the bends. Thank you, Bob Dylan.

  2. Ah, well, I’m not sure how much philosophy for kids there is in there (part of the joke) apart from the video’s exemplifying the Incongruity theory of humor.

    The backstory: I was writing an email about boys, the line “let’s hear it for the boy” came to mind, thought it’d be funny to–commedia dell’arte style–to insert the Ridiculous in there. Also reminded me very nostalgically of my childhood in Wisconsin. My sisters were big Top 40 fanatics. We must have spent some Saturdays dancing together and singing along to songs like this. On that, you can bet your bottom dollar.

  3. Yeah, me too. (See my comment above.)

    You know, come to think of it: maybe *I’m* no Romeo but maybe *I’m* a lovin-one man show… Whoa? Whoa? Whoa whoa.”


    P.S. Wait for the aliens in the post today.

  4. I’m not sure whether we understanding each other. Maybe we do. My suggestion would be two-fold: 1) to ask how we got to thinking IN TERMS OF tightrope walking IN THE FIRST PLACE; 2) to replace this worn-out conception with another, more radiant conception that is expressive of a better form of life. By 2), we’ve “learned to forget” all about balance & tightrope walking entirely.

    Not sure if this is also what you’re thinking in the first half of your reply above.

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