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Work • Capitalism

The Difficulties of Work-Life Balance

In 1907, in Edwardian Britain, a shy hesitant boy was born to a highly disciplined and ambitious family living in Manchester Square in London.  His father was a major-general and a baronet – and the chief surgeon to king Edward VII. His mother, the daughter of a prominent reverend, managed the servants, took care of her husband’s social life and contributed to charitable causes. She had six children, all raised by nannies; John was the fourth. The household was austere and focused on work and piety. The six children spent most of their time in the nursery on the top floor of the house and saw their mother for an hour a day, and their father for three hours on Sunday mornings.

John on the left with one of his brothers and his parents.

In adulthood, John remembered his mother as ‘remote, self-centred and cold’. His chief attachment was to a nanny called Minnie. Minnie was, he later said, ‘the one person who had steadily mothered him’ while Minnie referred to John as the favourite of the children. But when John was four, Minnie had to leave the household – and John took the loss very badly. When he was fifty-two, he wrote: ‘If a mother hands over her baby completely to a nanny, she should realise that in her child’s eyes, Nanny will be the real mother-figure, and not Mummy. This may be no bad thing, always provided that the care is continuous. But for a child to be looked after entirely by a loving nanny and then for her to leave when he is two or three or even four or five, can be almost as tragic as the loss of a mother.’ 

At the age of 11, John was sent to boarding school, Lindisfarne prep school in Worcester. It was rigid and sombre. Boys slept in dormitories of thirty, the teachers called them by a number, they lacked any privacy, the food was forbidding and outdoor sports were compulsory even in snow. He later told a friend: ‘I wouldn’t send a dog away to boarding school’. 

A dormitory at 11 year old John’s prep school

John was John Bowlby (1907-1990), psychoanalyst, and possibly the most influential figure in our modern understanding of childcare and relationships. Bowlby’s contribution was to explain in scientific detail the sensitivity of a child to its carers in its earliest years. In his great work Attachment and Loss (published in three volumes in 1969, 1972 and 1980), Bowlby explained that an adult’s sense of self is built up through the relationships it has as a child: if a parent or carer is warm, consistent, attuned, steady and kind, the child will thrive. It will have confidence in itself and in the world. It will know how to love and will have the courage to start relationships, secure in the knowledge that it can complain calmly if its needs are neglected. But if the child is humiliated, ignored or shamed, then extraordinary damage will be done to it emotionally. It will always at some level doubt itself, it will be at high risk of suffering from depression and anxiety; sex will be troublesome and in a pattern Bowlby termed ‘insecure attachment’, it will be in the habit of escaping intimacy through defensiveness or rage. In the concluding volume of Attachment and Loss, Bowlby wrote: ‘Intimate attachments to other human beings are the hub around which a person’s life revolves, not only when he is an infant or a toddler or a schoolchild but throughout his adolescence and his years of maturity as well, and on into old age. From these intimate attachments a person draws his strength and enjoyment of life and, through what he contributes, he gives strength and enjoyment to others.’

Parents had always known that their primary task was to ensure their children’s safety and welfare; but modernity changed our collective understanding of where this safety and welfare might lie. No longer were these a matter of knowing how to curtsey or shoot a gun, read Latin or dance a waltz. First and foremost, the task of a parent was to help a child emotionally. It was to give him or her a solid base, to model healthy love; to guide them towards secure attachment. There was nothing more important than the so-called ‘little things’ that wealthy parents had previously left to nannies on the top floor of townhouses. Healthy humans emerge, wrote Bowlby, from ‘all the cuddling and playing, the intimacies of suckling by which a child learns the comfort of his mother’s body, the rituals of washing and dressing by which through her pride and tenderness towards his little limbs he learns the values of his own…’ By being given such attention, the child learns to trust that difficulties can be managed; that slip-ups are only that and that it is entitled to be treated with kindness and consideration in relationships henceforth. ‘It is as if maternal care were as necessary for the proper development of personality as vitamin D for the proper development of bones.’

In the seventeenth century, a so-called ‘good’ family had let their child cry until it fell asleep; it had smacked it into obedience and had ignored most of its emotional needs – so that it might become polite, brave and modest.

Pieter Coddle, Portrait of a Family, c.1661

Three hundred years later, good parents knew they had to smile when a child showed them its drawings, they had to be present at birthdays and school plays and had to get on the floor and play with a toy rabbit or an electric train – so that their offspring might in time stand a chance of thriving.

Richard and Mildred with their children Peggy, Donald, and Sidney, Virginia, April 1965. 

For Bowlby, the chief danger to a child was not that it would be eaten by lions or sidelined at court, but that it wouldn’t be able to love, that it might suffer from anxiety – from having been incorrectly soothed – or depression – from having been insufficiently ‘seen’ and encouraged. Emotional deprivation became for modern parents what poverty and disgrace had been for their forebearers.

Unfortunately, and unexpectedly, such insights into the principles of child development opened a new landscape of pain for modern parents. It is hard enough to feed and clothe a young child. It is immeasurably harder to feed and clothe a young child – and also, along the way, to play games with them, learn the names of each of their favourite stuffed animals, express amazement at their pictures, read them stories a night, explain very patiently to them why child seats are important in a car, ask them with patience not to pull the cat’s tail, implore them with softness to eat their vegetables and guide them gently to brush their teeth.

Even more challengingly, Bowlby’s insights into child development came at exactly the moment in the history of capitalism when businesses and governments began fully to appreciate the concept of competition. In Individualism and the Economic Order published in 1948, the conservative Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek argued that in order to ensure their survival, businesses had to become ever more competitive and aggressive. They had to try to drive competing enterprises into bankruptcy in a never ending economic war of all against all, of which the customer would be the ultimate benefactor. Anxiety, while a personal problem, emerged as the central asset of modern business life. 

In Hayek’s worldview, a properly efficient marketplace would be one where we, as individual workers, would be at all times in danger of exhaustion and alarm. This had not always been the case. The philosopher John Stuart Mill had worked in London for a vastly powerful business – the East India Company – from 1823 to 1858. He was mainly involved in policy formation and finished his career in one of the most senior roles: his job title was ‘The Examiner’. It was a highly responsible position; Mill was often required to give evidence on behalf of the Company before Parliamentary Committees. And he was very well paid. The job carried a salary of GBP 2000 – more than 20 times the average income. But while employed by the East India Company, Mill also managed to write some highly influential philosophical works – including, among others, two monumental books: A System of Logic (1843) and The Principles of Political Economy (1848). Mill was able to do so because most afternoons, the East India Company’s offices were extremely quiet: one was only expected to put in four decent hours a day. So Mill could sit at his desk and get on with his writing. Nobody was angry with him for doing so; if anything they were impressed by his work ethic. He might, if he had had children, have gone home very early and never missed bathtime.

In his report for the UK government’s 1864 School Enquiry Commission, the poet and civil servant Matthew Arnold advised that England should follow France in its recommended daily workload for teachers: ‘A teacher at a French Lycée has three four or five hours a day in lessons and conferences, then he is free.’ Arnold was specifically arguing against the English practice of school teachers working any more hours than this supervising games. Arnold and Mill demonstrate how normal it was in the professional world of the mid-19th century to work around 20 hours a week – and be paid handsomely for the effort.

Nowadays, the idea of even having precisely defined working hours no longer feels respectable. We are, in a sense, meant to be always at work. Because of developments in the technology of access, we have been getting steadily busier for a long time.  In early 18th-century Scotland, you might turn up in mid-summer at someone’s house – hoping to get them to do some work for you – only to be informed that they had ‘gone to London’ and that they would be ‘back by Christmas’. But if there was anything urgent that needed doing, you could always travel ten days and nights in a coach in pursuit of them. Or you could send a letter: it would take 110 hours and cost two-shillings – two days average wages. But soon things got faster and cheaper. Technology got more sophisticated. By 1840, a letter would only take 33 hours and cost a penny (about GBP 5 today). However, if your quarry had gone overseas, they would be out of reach for weeks or months, at least, until 1858 when the first successful telegraph cable was laid across the Atlantic – though if they went to Australia they were safe until October 1872. From the 1930s onwards, the telex meant that work could follow you more assiduously. Extensive documents and files could track you round the globe, so you would never have an excuse for not having relevant materials to hand. But the telex system was expensive and required special operators so there were restrictions on its use. By 1993, email solved those problems – reducing the cost of communication to almost zero – though you could very reasonably say that you didn’t get the email because you were on a train, at the airport or because you had stepped out of the office to have lunch. Until 2007, that is, when the smartphone became mainstream. There are now few moments when one is legitimately beyond reach: in the shower perhaps – though there are very good waterproof cases. Or one could spend time in Big Bend National Park in Texas, where there is, as yet, almost no coverage. The history of communications can be told as a success story, of course. But it is also a record of a tragic gradual conquest of individual privacy. 

Modern childrearing practices have come into direct conflict with modern capitalism. At the very moment when we have discovered the importance of competition, anxiety and constant communication, we have also discovered – thanks to John Bowlby – the importance of cuddles, bedtime stories and very patient games on the carpet. A parent returning late from a business trip will fret at the many nights they have missed bath time and the number of stories they haven’t been able to read. A tender part of us has been awakened – and now aches. But these are not worries that would have occurred to a knight returning from the Crusades. In 1095 – when his son Baldwin was two – Count Robert of Flanders, headed overseas on the First Crusade to the Holy Land. He came back home in August 1099 by which time he had missed 1,460 successive bedtime stories. But it didn’t make Robert feel guilty or sad because in 11th-century Europe, being a very good father was not assessed in terms of quantity of contact. 

Our best – and very time consuming – ideas about how to raise a child have arrived on the scene at a very awkward moment. Our best ideas about how to run an economy and our best ideas about how to raise families have ended up completely at odds.

Not least, we live at a moment – unusual by historical standards – when pretty much everyone is involved in housework. Today, we tend to think of the idea of having a servant as an immense luxury. But for large swathes of humanity, very large numbers of people employed other people to help them domestically. In 1850 in the UK, for example, families with an income of GBP 300 a year (the basic income of any managerial job) would typically have had two live-in servants. A clerk on half of that (GBP 150 a year) would usually have employed a full-time maid. Even just renting a room almost always meant having a shared servant. But since the second world war, in the most productive economies, it has become prohibitively expensive to employ a fellow citizen to live in your house and make you cups of tea, dust the mantlepiece and clean the bath taps. The technological developments of the 1950s and 1960s – the vacuum cleaners and dishwashers and tumble driers – made domestic work a bit less cumbersome, but they didn’t bring it to an end. The long-promised robotic servants who really will take domestic chores out of our hands haven’t arrived yet. But, of course, they will become standard – eventually. They might be cheap and common by 2045. So there will have been a period from about 1945 to 2045 when domestic work was neither the province of servants nor of robots. A century is nothing in the big sweep of history. It’s just odd and very challenging that we happen to be living in it at the moment.

We’ve been reluctant to admit that operating in certain areas of a high-pressured modern economy might really not be so compatible with having a family. We haven’t wondered on any large scale whether it might not be an idea to remain celibate. For much of history, the question was taken very seriously indeed – and quite often the answer was a definite ‘yes’. A whole range of jobs were seen as incompatible with family life. St Hilda of Whitby was one of the most powerful and accomplished women in the early history of England. She was a very senior administrator, running large agricultural enterprises, was a leading educationalist and was a management consultant to kings and princes. And she did all this while being noted for her good temper. But she remained unmarried and childless. It’s not that, because she was a nun, she wasn’t allowed to get married and so had to make the best of her work opportunities without a supportive home life. The line of thought ran the other way round. She was able to have a stellar career and achieve so much for the community because she was free of the demands of children, relationships and domestic life. Being a nun meant she lived in an efficient collective household – she would be supplied with meals, laundry and heating without having to organise everything for herself. It was an approach to certain kinds of work – intellectual, administrative and cultural – that persisted for many centuries. In 1900, academia in the UK was still almost entirely a career for the unmarried. The view was that certain kinds of jobs require such effort and continuous devotion and loom so large in the imagination that one really shouldn’t try to combine them with the duties of a family. One should live in very well-organised commune (like a monastery or a college), one should be single and one should socialise mainly with people who are involved in the same kinds of work. This stands as a reminder that we’re asking ourselves to do a lot of complicated things at once. No wonder we squabble, feel resentment and experience the occasional burst of despair. 

What is perhaps most jarring is that modernity denies the problem; it refuses to accept head-on that capitalism and family life are in direct conflict. It speaks, in it’s more sentimental and insulting moments, of the possibility of ‘work-life balance.’ But there can be no such thing: everything worth fighting for unbalances one’s life. Attempting to have – at the same time – a good home life and a good work life is an inescapably arduous ambition. It might happen; it almost certainly won’t. We have ended up furious with ourselves (and our partners and children) for failing to attain a momentously elusive condition. One might – with similar levels of justice – berate oneself for not combining a job in the accounts department of a supermarket chain with giving piano recitals at the Grosser Musikvereinssaal in Vienna. Yet failure isn’t personal. It isn’t our own incompetence or lack of drive that sets work and home life at odds; we just happen to be living at a point in history where two big, opposed themes have come into collision. We have demanding ideas about the needs of families and have demanding ideas about work, efficiency, profit and competition. Both are founded in crucial insights. We deserve a lot of sympathy.

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