Deborah Orr: Why I've come to loathe all this cheap talk about finding a 'work-life' balance

Work is often an escape and a joy. There is little work that provides no satisfaction at all
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David Cameron has announced that he wishes to see an end to the nation's attachment to the "Protestant work ethic". Instead he would like to lead us as we forge "a modern vision of ethical work". This "modern vision" would place as much emphasis on "GWB" or "General Well-Being" as it would on gross domestic product, and it would involve tempering capitalism with "commitment".

It's all, says Cameron, about work-life balance (as if we need to be lectured on this by a man who celebrated the imminent addition of a third child to a young family by deciding to take a run at becoming Prime Minister). He burbles on about beautiful surroundings, quality culture and strong relationships. It isn't that he's wrong or anything. He's just fatuous. "Work-life balance" is just something people talk about at work. And frankly, they should all shut up.

I've come to loathe the very phrase "work-life balance", as it is such a fraudulent and manipulative little platitude. Supposedly touchy-feely and progressive, it is actually a cryptic and sneaky bureaucratic behemoth that reinforces the values it is supposed to be challenging. Work, says the phrase, comes first, before life. Life, says the phrase, is anything that isn't work. These have to be balanced, says the phrase, because they oppose each other. Work is not life. And life is not work.

Yet much of the stuff we fill our lives with magically becomes work if it is being done for money. Hanging out with one's own children is "life" while being paid to hang out with someone else's is "work". Caring for one's own dependent relative is "life" while looking after someone else's is "work". Interestingly, while these two occupations surely come closer to Cameron's idea of "ethical work" than nearly everything else, they are both jobs that are little valued when they are conducted in the professional sphere and even less valued when they are carried out by a friend or family member in the home.

Likewise, many of the most creative aspects of work in the home have been commodified and fetishised to such an extent that they are no longer even seen as part of the work of the household, but instead are viewed as hobbies. Gardening, for example, is hard graft. But it has been adopted so ardently as a "lifestyle choice" that among those who can afford it all but the lightest of deadheading has become something left to the professionals. The implication here is that if you enjoy your work in the home - if you like cooking, or knitting, or running up curtains, then you are not working. Instead you are indulging your hobby.

All this, of course, long ago headed off those mad birds from the 1970s with their demands for Wages For Housework. The organisation remains, in fact, as does the vast disparity in time spent on domestic labour between men and women. But the moment when its political goals seemed attainable is long gone. If anything, it is further away than ever, since so much of the work of keeping a home ticking over has been given its style makeover, and seen as something one would absolutely love to do if only one had the time and the money.

And then there's the children. It's a little more difficult to make the having of children into a "lifestyle choice". But that hasn't stopped people from managing it. Up and down the country mutinous work colleagues routinely sulk because they resent parents for waltzing off on the dot of five, or presuming that they get priority when it comes to bagging an August holiday.

Again and again I read the thin outpourings of some young gunslinger or another, opining - they think so freshly - that "it is parents who are selfish because they choose to have children". Sorry chums, it's not a choice, it's a biological imperative. In the end I had about as much choice in the matter of having children as a rabbit. Whittering on about people having children because they are selfish is about as wise and pithy as confronting your mum and dad with the unanswerable accusation: "I didn't ask to be born."

Nevertheless, this moronic attitude has gained vast currency. Women now own up to full-time motherhood in much the same way as they might own up to full-time masturbation - they are embarrassed and ashamed of their idle self-indulgence. And while there is a great deal of talk about improving the flexibility of childcare facilities for mothers, much of this carries with it the assumption that the mothers in question will be repaying a generous state by getting out into the marketplace to expand the economy.

Despite genuine early efforts to improve "work-life balance" - with improvements in maternity and paternity leave - the Government soon caught on to the fact that nothing angers the business community more than the suggestion that such constructs as family, society and community might come within their ambit.

Nine years in, and there is no sign of the legislation that would give part-time workers (mainly women with children) the same statutory rights as full-time workers. If anything underlines how one is a less valuable person if one does less paid work, it is this. Any politician with a genuine commitment to "balancing" work and the rest of life would launch an assault on the idea that we all should be at work five days out of every seven. Yet David Cameron is no more likely to sign up to European working times than Blair turned out to be.

And then there is the ultimate con-trick in the "work-life balance" sting, which is the powerful idea that while "life" is leisure, "work" is sacrifice. All over the world men continue to ply the idea that because they bring home the money, they are head of the household, and therefore deserve to be waited on at home. If the television show Wife Swap did us one service, it was to display, post-sexual revolution, just how prevalent this attitude really is.

Work, far from being a burden, is often an escape and a joy. Sometimes, when it is stressful at home, work is an escape from responsibility because there is a structure at work, and a social life. This does not apply only to work that is in itself predictably rewarding or highly paid. There is little work that provides no satisfaction at all.

Maybe we could consider dropping the "Protestant" from the phrase. But instead of binning the idea that work can be the main building block of a life well lived, we need to wrest work back from those who wish to define it narrowly, as an activity that generates cash.

Purposeful activity keeps humans physically and mentally healthy, both individually and culturally. It should be valued and admired on those terms first and foremost. That is "a modern vision of ethical work", and Mr Cameron is not going to buy it any more than the rest of this party or their heartland supporters.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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