When Work Is Life, And Life Is Work

“The frenetic pace of modern life can lead to an obscuring or even a loss of what is truly human. Perhaps more than in other periods of history, our time is in need of that genius which belongs to women, and which can ensure sensitivity for human beings in every circumstance.”

Those words were spoken in Croatia last weekend, uttered by an aging European male who has spent his professional life in the company of males only. That would be Pope John Paul II, a figure not necessarily associated with what are deemed “progressive” statements on the subject of the female sex. Presiding as he does over a church that bars women from its clergy (though the Catholic Church is hardly alone in that regard), the Pope is generally relegated to cave-man status when the discussion turns to the role of modern, liberated women.

And yet, the day after the Pope’s address in the Balkans, The New York Times had a page 1 story that spoke to the transforming possibilities of “that genius which belongs to women.” The debate in the U.S. Senate over the child tax credit, The Times reported, was shaped in part by the firsthand experiences of working mothers who serve in that body. A generation ago, a hundred males would have passed judgment on the tax credit without really understanding its real-life impact. Now, however, Senators like Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, among others, bring knowledge to a piece of legislation that the Senator Claghorns of the past would have regarded as an abstraction.

Women, the Pope said, “enrich the world’s understanding and help to make human relations more honest and authentic.” This is a generalization, of course, and we all know that generalizations about traditionally disenfranchised, alienated or otherwise oppressed groups are to be avoided in accordance with the strictures of politically acceptable speech. (Generalizations about groups judged to be all-powerful and oppressive, however, are acceptable and even required at times.) Still, based on The Times ‘ story about the tax-credit debate, you have to admit that the man may be onto something. Certainly the presence of women, and more particularly working mothers, in the Senate has helped bring about a “more honest and authentic” debate about family policy on Capitol Hill.

A larger question, in my mind anyway, is whether women in non-traditional roles have either the desire or the power to change the way we think about work itself, just as they are changing the way we think about issues like child care. The rules and expectations of the American work culture continue to be defined by males, particularly males who measure their worth as workers by the number of hours spent on the job. The American work culture in recent years has produced, without complaint, a slow but steady increase in the average work week, a decline in America’s already paltry vacation packages and a perverse sense that one must be on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The influx of women into the work force apparently has yet to transform the macho work culture of America, where workers pride themselves on 80-hour weeks and unused personal time and the diminution of what used to be called “leisure time.” Americans are working longer hours than they did 20 years ago, according to a bevy of government and private studies. And, thanks to unmerciful technology, they can be and are expected to be only a cell-phone call or an e-mail away from work, even if they’re on “vacation.” On the golf course the other day (yep, I still have leisure time), I overheard some poor slob conducting business on a cell phone while standing in the tee box. A nitwit? Yes, but the look on his face suggested that he saw nothing wrong with this blending of work and leisure. (The look on my face, on the other hand, suggested violent disagreement.)

Nobody is that important. But far be it for the new American worker, shackled to the office with cell phones and laptops and other junk, to admit it.

It takes a man to devise a system that is so absolutely at odds with fuzzy notions of family values. The more we work, the less time we have not only for ourselves, but for our loved ones. At the risk of a sweeping generalization, I believe women understand that better than men do.

Historian Niall Ferguson recently wrote in praise of the American adherence to the old notion of the Protestant work ethic. Americans (even non-Protestants!), he was glad to report, work nearly 2,000 hours a year, 22 percent more than German workers, and 3 percent more than we worked in 1979. This, he said, was good news for the American economy.

But what about American families?