Too Busy to Care

Anne-Marie Slaughter Unfinished Business book cover

A review of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business

I wanted to like this book. I had high hopes.

Alas, I found it disappointing. It seemed to really care about the problem of under-representation of women in positions of power, but didn’t prescribe a radical enough solution. Or any real solution. I was hoping for a detailed analysis of what policy changes we need to create the feminist socialist utopia, but instead we get:

The specifics of policy proposals on each of these issues differ from state to state and often by party affiliation and political philosophy; a comprehensive catalogue is thus impossible.

What a cop out! Someone give me a fucking research grant.

Over and over again, it falls into the same rabbit hole of offering tips for younger people facing the work/family dilemma without exploring what needs to change in the bigger social context. I find those conversations so boring. Tip, you want some tips?! Be extremely well-educated and able to demand good working conditions. Hire a cleaner. Buy food out a lot. Find a great childcare centre. Have grandparents in the same city. Don’t get sick. Don’t have sick kids.

It’s all varying shades of privileged bullshit.

Wow I’m being super harsh and I didn’t really mean to be super harsh! I think I’d really like Slaughter in real life! It’s just… I have two kids under three and my husband works a 50 hour week. There are so many chores, the children have so many needs all day, time for myself is a distant dream, we never have any adult time at the moment because he logs back in from home as soon as Davy is in bed, and y’know, what is life all for, right?

These entwined issues, working conditions and valuing care work, they’re super political and I don’t understand why the book tries to depoliticise them. I don’t understand why it brushes off the discussion about specific policies. There is huge value in having specific policies to argue for! What do we want? An improvement to the status quo but we don’t want to predetermine how! When do we want it ? As soon as we figure out the policy details!

Pretty weak rallying cry.

At the very least, we need some criteria for evaluating policy proposals, and some outlines of the trade-offs, otherwise it’s vague platitudes all the way down.

Let’s be even blunter. The political alliance between libertarians and social conservatives hinges on the shared view that children are the responsibility of their parents, not society at large. Each branch of right-wing political philosophy has an attitude opposed to providing more financial and social benefits to parents and children. Conservatives say they’re in favour of family and community providing for themselves, and if the state starts “paying people to have children”, it undermines the natural bonds of care. Libertarians hiss and roar at any redistribution of income: “don’t have kids if you can’t afford it”, etc. The economics of care is completely, fundamentally a political issue.

In New Zealand our political centre is located somewhere further towards social democracy than the USA (relief!). When centre-right parties accept policies such as paid parental leave and childcare subsidies, this is a shift in the centre and a win for the view that families should be supported by the state. Getting to that point requires a lot of debate because there are significant political divisions.

Granted, Slaughter is writing for a USA audience, and they have pretty much nothing, so any improvement would be good. But New Zealand has a lot of the sorts of policies Slaughter name-drops, longer paid parental leave, guaranteed sick leave, etc; and we can tell you it’s still not enough. We don’t have 50/50 gender representation in top positions, or even in middle-management positions, in either the public or private sector. We have a lot of single parents living in poverty – in part because the Working for Families programme is highly discriminatory towards single parents and parents without secure work. Even though we have employment equity legislation that has lead to a court victory for aged care workers, we still underpay the whole care sector.

Raising kids together

OK, so if Slaughter isn’t focused on the policy reforms needed, what is her focus? The central thesis, so far as there is one, is that women can succeed at work when men take the lead role at home.

If the vast majority of male CEOs with families have wives or partners who are either at home fulltime during the caregiving years or whose work flexibility allows them to be the lead parent, then women CEOs are going to need the same thing.

Deep sigh from me over here. It’s trotted out as the solution so much, but, oh, I’m so doubtful. I’m not knocking it as part of the picture for mothers with truly exceptional careers, but, but, but, but. So many things. Here are some particularly big ones.

  • I don’t want to be an honorary man in a system of patriarchal values, I want to change the system so that it actively supports caregiving work.
  • Time use surveys are very clear that women with at-home male partners do VASTLY more unpaid work than men with at-home female partners.
  • Survivorship bias – looking at the small group who succeed and trying to extrapolate out reasons for their success, instead of looking at the conditions that lead only a small group to succeed in the first place.
  • Even if this worked, it would replace the “woman gap” with a “caregiver gap”, which would still be a major problem of representation.
  • How many men want a career-supporting role?

On the final point: many men want to be fully engaged dads. BUT. How many people of any gender want to be the 1950s housewife, devoted to supporting their partner in every way? No-one! It’s a raw fucking deal! Role differentiation premised on equality and mutual support is fine, but that’s not the arrangement which enables male CEOs to work 60 hour weeks. It’s just not. The false equivalence undermines so much of what feminists have fought for these past decades. It undermines the achievement of a relationship like the one Slaughter describes between herself and her husband! It’s not so long ago that wives were literally their husband’s property, I mean, bloody hell! We can’t fix this by saying “ok boys, our turn, time to swap roles!”

In a gender equal society, no-one should be willing to exploit their partner’s unpaid labour.

Because it’s not only the joy of days at the park, it’s the slog of doing everything else, all the cooking, all the cleaning, all the invisible stuff like arranging the social life. That’s what sits behind the men in the boardrooms doing long hours without burning out.

To achieve equality, we need to crash that system down. It is absolutely not about selective reversal. Importantly, to do things differently, we can’t tip-toe around the question of who benefits from unpaid labour in a capitalist economy. We need the system-wide view. It’s really obvious in my relationship, especially when I was in part-time paid work. If I do an hour of chores while he does an hour of paid work, my work is supporting his work, and his work is generating revenue for his bosses, and they’re getting wealthy, and boom: that’s a microcosm of the larger societal dependence on unpaid labour to generate wealth. There’s a lot of writing on this stuff out there, and Slaughter mentions it only glancingly.

Two careers is going to be our norm, so I favour workplace arrangements that accommodate a family situation where both parents want to spend a lot of time with the kids. But here’s something people don’t often mention: long hours are horrible for an at-home parent. When I’m at work too, I don’t mind my husband’s long hours anywhere near as much. When I’m at home, it’s a major imposition. It feels like his work is such a huge presence in my life; and it is, it’s ridiculous, he’s trying to squeeze a 55 hour workload into 50 hours and then squeeze those 50 hours around the early bedtimes of two little kids. He logs back on once they’re in bed, and of course, I’m at home full-time so guess who does all the chores? Some people tell me I’m lucky because most men with that sort of job don’t see their kids during the working week.

All dads, including the best dads, benefit from low social expectations of their parenting. Men are free to decide how much effort they want to put into the parent-child relationship without worrying about falling short of community standards. I envy that freedom, while being unable to imagine what it must be like.

Before I read Slaughter’s book, I read a piece by her husband Andrew Moravcsik, “Why I put my wife’s career first”. This paragraph resonated with me:

Despite many days of weariness, I would never give up my years of being what the journalist Katrin Bennhold has called “The One”—the parent my child trusted to help master his first stage role, the parent who shared my child’s wonder at his first musical composition, the parent my boys called for when they needed comfort in the night. When my sons turn to me in this way, I feel a pride that is in many respects deeper than any pride I have experienced professionally.

When I first read it, I thought but I want that, I gestated these children, I deserve the payoff of parental love!
Here’s Slaughter on this issue:

…being needed is a universal desire and the traditional coin in which mothers have been compensated. If we accept that trade-offs are necessary for women if they want to reach the top of their careers, even if they have money and choices, and if we’re prepared to let men be equal caregivers just as we insist on being equal competitors, then we have to be very honest about our deepest needs and desires.

Yeah, well, y’know, if the choice is cuddles or career, I chose cuddles. I want to be there for the big moments – to pick them up on their first days of school. I want to be there for the little moments too, the slices of life that I might forget and they might remember.

But.

My husband wants the same.

And.

We both also want to have interesting careers.

If Slaughter is saying that men should be more involved in caregiving, I wholeheartedly agree. I want the norm to be equal parenting. But I reject the idea that more men need to be the “lead parent” because I think the “lead parent” idea is part of the problem. When you frame the question as “which person is the primary caregiver / lead parent”, the opportunities for how to configure things are restricted. If you think in terms of “how do we manage our working lives so that we can share the caregiving over the next several years” it’s a much more egalitarian conversation. It’s good to have two people (or more!) who want to be involved with the kids and bring different skills and different perspectives. It should be unexceptional for people to want to combine hands-on caregiving with other things in life, regardless of gender.

When my husband is here, he’s fully here. Wednesday, Davy had a nightmare and my husband slept with him the rest of the night, reassuring Davy with his closeness, while I settled bub back so sleep. Thursday night at 4am he was defrosting expressed breastmilk and administering pamol after bub woke with a temperature. There is such relief in my heart knowing that I’m not the only one Davy turns to. The hardest part of being a mother is when both kids want me and ONLY me. The more they’re willing to receive comfort from others, the more I can have a break without worrying.

The difficulty though, is that Davy loves his dad and doesn’t understand why he has to go to work so much. Kids with two really engaged parents don’t think of them as transferable figures. This is the sinkhole in the logic. When I pick him up from creche, he always asks “where Daddy?” I remember when he was a baby, thinking, I love him so so much, how could anyone love anything this much; and only my husband knew because he felt it too, and we would look at our baby together and hold hands. Now I look at my boy and think, he loves us so so much, how could anyone love me this much, how humbling to be needed and trusted to this degree, what an honour – and again, my husband feels it too.

The next circle is also close. I see the pride on my mother’s face when he runs up to her and says “Nana, Nana, Nana!” My brother’s smile at the painting Davy made him, or the way he cuddles bub and grins at his adorable little laugh. On the trip up to Auckland the other week, the joy of seeing Davy with my husband’s family, seeing those connections get stronger. Surrounding my boys with thick layers of love from their whole family is much more satisfying to me than being the one they love most.

Today my husband was holding Ben on his lap while I played a game with Davy, and I saw him smiling at us the way I smile at them sometimes. This love is more joyful for being witnessed. The encompassing love of family, that’s what we’re here on this earth to enjoy.

This is what we miss out on when work takes too much of our life.

A privileged conversation

Slaughter devotes a lot of space to the importance of having conversations with your partner about how relationship divisions are going to pan out. We had those conversations, and it’s going to plan so far. I’d find a family-friendly job, he’d earn enough for me to take unpaid leave when our babies were tiny. Two problems: first, if all workplaces accommodated parenting responsibilities and paid parental leave was longer, we wouldn’t need to have those conversations. Second, having discussions with your spouse about this stuff and planning your career around kids – those are luxuries. There’s immense privilege in the premise, and this is not given anywhere near enough attention. Slaughter’s husband has a pretty solid career too by the way, he’s a professor at Princeton. It’s about as far removed from the average family as you can get.

She doesn’t ignore this all together – there’s discussion of the “what ifs” and how a “resilient system” can cope with the unexpected. OK, but the important thing about “what ifs” is that they’re really “whens”. A normal life is one with heaps of curveballs, heaps of unexpected events. The specific thing might be out of the ordinary, but something was bound to happen eventually. Especially if we look at things from a system-wide view: if you have ten employees, you should prepare for a few of them to be sick each winter. Even more so from a policy perspective: across the whole population, the unexpected events are actually pretty predictable. Some people will have kids when they’re not financially set up for it – that’s going to happen. What are we going to do about it?
Slaughter talks a lot about “managing up”, or, as I like to think of it, pushing back against unreasonable expectations. I agree that this is hugely important, whether you’re in a workplace that needs big changes, or whether you’re in a workplace that is fairly good already. But it’s another area where privilege is key. When working part-time, I found I needed to manage my coworkers’ expectations of my output and availability, and being upfront and realistic was the best approach. It meant a few instances of warning people I’d have to slip out of the meeting early to get to creche before it shut. I think being officially part time made this easier, because I wasn’t being paid to be there for the same hours or the same output. Managing up requires a lot prerequisites though. Being established as a capable employee in that role; being on good personal terms with your coworkers; having valuable knowledge or skills that make your retention important; having demonstrated commitment to the organisation. If you’re not in this position – for example because you’ve just started a new job or because your skill-set is easily replaceable – you don’t have the power.

Good for men?

She writes:

The majority of American women have demanded over the last half century that society reject and revise traditional norms about what women want and what they can do. It is time to do the same for men.

And:

…if we truly believe that care is just as valuable as competition, then we will realize that men who are only breadwinners are missing out on something deeply satisfying and self-improving.

Sure, this is true, I think things will be better for everyone if we had a society based on human connection rather than competition and acquisition. But only in the sense that the oppressors are destroying their ability to care about more important things. Not in a direct material sense. There are big payoffs from status and power and money! Look at Donald Trump – he’s rich enough that he could spend the rest of his life doing whatever he wants, and he’s running for president because he wants to be the boss of things. (Hey Donald, have you considered maybe just playing with your grandkids instead? Just putting it out there. Y’know, maybe you’ll find it really rewarding?)

We need a movement of people of every gender fighting against a culture that values work and status above enjoyment of life. Fighting for more financial support for families, so people don’t have to work such long hours. And fighting for workplace arrangements that give plenty of space for people to have a life outside of work. Men absolutely need to be involved. But we shouldn’t be afraid to point out that the gender gap at the top is good for a lot of men. Overstating the “everybody wins!” thing is naive and counterproductive. Some people will lose. That is why they are resisting change! If men are two thirds of the legislature instead of half, they get double the influence of women. Some of them don’t want to give that up. Even my husband, who would really like to work shorter hours, benefits from the current arrangement in some ways: I do far more chores than he does, because when he’s around I want us to be able to hang out as a family.

Representation of caregivers

On an individual level, for the woman who wants to prioritise having a career, not having kids is the single biggest thing she can do to make that a reality. It’s the obvious solution. So it’s strange that it’s not considered in more detail. The declining birthrate among educated women is crucially relevant.

Women my age are the third generation of women with access to reliable contraception. Our great-grandmothers, in the 1930s and 1940s, had no reliable way of limiting family size. Our grandmothers in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s had access to contraception, and family size reduced drastically. Our mothers, in the 1980s and 1990s, had even better access to contraception, and also to abortion, and also benefited from (and contributed to) an enormous change in attitudes to childbearing. The idea that women might choose not to have children has slowly become more accepted. The pioneers of childlessness by choice faced enormous stigma and many let people assume that not having children was a stroke of fate rather than the result of careful contraceptive use (Dame Sylvia Cartwright mentioned this in a fascinating interview here).

By the time my mother had me in the mid-80s, her father’s response on finding out she was pregnant was “oh, I always assumed my eldest daughter would be more of a career woman”. The battle she faced, and many of her friends, was trying to do both. Fast forward to my generation: we’ve had childless women role models, we’ve seen that they can have enviably fulfilling lives. In New Zealand, there is of course Helen Clark. In the USA, of the three women on the Supreme Court, only one has children. In Australia, the first woman Prime Minister was childless. Meanwhile, we’ve also seen women with children (including our mothers) making career compromises they would never have envisaged, and having almost no leisure time. Having a kid might seem appealing when the image is of a relaxed time together with your funny and adorable toddler, less so when the image is of unrelenting chaos of competing demands, and feeling like you can never take a minute to just pause and enjoy.

Slaughter says, and I agree:

In short, both women and men who experience the dual tug of care and career and as a result must make compromises at work pay a price. Redefining the women’s problem as a care problem thus broadens our lens and allows us to focus much more precisely on the real issue: the undervaluing of care, no matter who does it.

Except when it comes to solutions, following the logic of much of the discussion in this book, there is a risk of solving the problem of women’s representation through more women choosing career over family involvement. This would still leave a big problem: those with extensive caregiving experience (men or women) would remain marginalised within the corridors of power. I’m imagining a room of decision-makers, and half don’t have kids, and the other half have partners who take a lead role with the kids and the household management, while they get on with important business. Regardless of the gender split, it has a vibe of “four legs good, two legs better”.
Or, some mothers eventually get there once their kids are grown, and that’s good, but it’s a different perspective to the parent still in the trenches. Or, some women in top positions become mothers once they’ve climbed career mountain, but by then they have enough money to outsource everything and their experience of motherhood is truly exceptional. IN any of these scenarios, we still have a major representation issue.

I’ve come to think that although much of the work I do in foreign policy and nonprofit management is intellectually harder than being a mother, parenting is emotionally harder and often far more perplexing.
There is scope for women like Slaughter who’ve had success in masculine fields to change how care work is valued, simply by being honest about the comparison between the types of work. If people with caregiving experience are excluded from power, we never get the opportunity to have those conversations. Meanwhile, there is still a pervasive idea that if you’re a woman with kids who wants a career, you’re probably not good with kids, or don’t enjoy it. The idea that you might want to contribute to the wider world partly because of your experiences as a caregiver remains difficult for some people to comprehend.

When I left school, there was a slow-dawning realisation that in the real world, men in charge were often less capable than I expected them to be. Their abilities made a poor impression, their pomposity was absurd, and you had to either laugh or cry at their obliviousness. You see these men and you quickly realise they don’t have the slightest inkling of how mediocre they are in comparison to the women working alongside them in less powerful roles while raising families.

(Of course, once you remember that women and men are equally capable, this is obviously going to happen, right? The over-representation of men crowds out capable woman, and less competent men get promoted above their ability).

Are long hours necessary?

Central to the problem of career progression for caregivers is the long hours problem. It’s THE BIG ISSUE. Slaughter doesn’t critique this anywhere near enough. She buys into it! Sometimes you’ll have to stay til midnight, that’s just professional, etc. That’s why you need a partner to be the lead carer! Ummmmm, welllllllll, yes, within the constraints of the system we’re in that might be true, but is it really necessary? If you’re an MP you need to stay until sitting hours end. Why don’t sitting hours end at a better time? We’ve been trying for centuries to figure out solutions to the challenges of modernity, it needs to be a collective enterprise, and no individual working a 55 hour week is going to make or break our system of government.

Here’s a story that happened to a friend in their law clerk year in one of the big firms. My friend left at 7pm on a Friday to go to a family function, intending to come back and work all weekend because there was a big project. The partner responsible berated this person for abandoning the project and said “your family has to learn that work sometimes comes first”.

Frankly, fuck that.

Once more for the people at the back, FUCK THAT. Your employer doesn’t own your life!
Most often, long hours are caused by arbitrary urgency and unnecessarily narrow responsibility. Sometimes this is obvious: two people working 60 hours a week for two months to get something finished, argh, just hire another person or take another month! Sometimes it’s more subtle. Why are junior doctors working such long hours when there’s no shortage of people wanting to study medicine?

One explanation is that long hours are core to capitalist logic. It makes it seem like those on super salaries deserve that money, it legitimises success and selfishness. If someone earns $150,000 working 30 hours a week, they would seem like one very lucky dude. The same person earning $300,000 working 60 hours a week can rationalise their salary – oh, the hours, never have time, work hard for the money, how dare it be taxed at a high rate! It almost doesn’t matter how high the salary gets, if you’re always working you can justify it to yourself.

If long hours and urgency led to good outcomes, this would all have some redeeming features. But it’s the opposite. It leads to blinkered decision-making, things get missed, the people in charge don’t question things enough because they’re operating under the pressure of “get it done, get it done”. The jobs where things really are urgent, burnout is a huge risk, and this needs to be managed through shift work and staffing levels. You don’t want the paramedic working a 60 hour week! People could die! If you’re a doctor in an emergency ward, we need you to have a good night’s sleep!

In other areas, like law and policy which is the area of interest to Slaughter and also, um, me, the urgency is… real but also not real. Sound, durable policy arises from a robust assessment of the problem to be addressed, careful consideration of alternatives, and an iterative refinement that builds consensus and broad support. A culture of urgency undermines this process, and creates a ridiculous waste of resources. If you’re working long hours, you’re at risk of tunnel vision and losing touch with the concerns of people outside your area of focus. You pass legislation that doesn’t work well, it disrupts entire sectors, it fails to achieve its policy goal, and seven years later the next government sets up a working group to review it and do it better. We can be more effective if we remember rushed and frantically busy aren’t the benchmarks of professional competence.

There’s a line of thought that the more committed and absorbed an employee is the better, but I’m very dubious about this. Effective delegation and teamwork requires letting go of the outcome somewhat and trusting others you work with. Being able to completely switch off when you walk out the door is good for a bit of perspective, which in turn helps the person in charge accommodate other views, which leads to a better result.

This brings me to a broader point about collective politics. There are seven billion people in the world, the best possibilities for improvement in global welfare comes from the plurality of voices contributing, not the marginally amplified voice of one smart person who gets to work an extra few hours a week in their paid job because they have a cleaner.

And hey, what about that cleaner? Because long hours are bad enough when you work in a white collar job with high pay – but when we normalise long hours, we make it miserable for people in low paid, physically demanding work.

Undervaluing downtime

There’s a slight of hand in saying that we need to value caring more without looking at what is on the other side of the ledger, looking at what is overvalued, and what specifically is undervalued. “Caring work” is an amorphous term. It involves the daily grunt work, packing lunches and pushing buggies and keeping calm when the kid hits another kid at the library, getting them bathed and to bed. That stuff is undervalued, but there’s more hiding behind it, and the hidden components of care are even less valued: in particular, connection and play and downtime. These are so thoroughly undervalued that some go so far as to doubt whether they’re necessary.

Downtime is when all the magic happens. Holidays, weekends, time that is unhurried and unscheduled, time that does what it wants. When I was back in the office, between babies, I had my lovely expansive afternoons with Davy – picking him up at 3.30ish most days. One day we got home and the neighbour’s cat was on the roof. Davy would have been around 18 months old. We watched that cat for almost an hour. He was entranced. He might not remember that, but I do, I’m keeping that memory for him. We watched that cat as it clambered round the roof, slipping in and out of view, and he laughed and he burbled away, pointing, “diddis!”. I remember it so clearly, I remember thinking – I am utterly glad that we get this time together, that I don’t have to hurry him down the stairs because he needs dinner soon.

Hey, how much is downtime valued in our world? Not so much eh.

Today I Skyped with my aunt in Vancouver. When her twins were four they stayed with us for a little while and my brother and I, young teenagers, would take them to the park. I remember pushing them on the swings – two of them and two of us – the game was to try and get the swings to sync up so that the twins could reach out to each other. We must have played that game for hours and hours and hours.

Spending time with loved ones is important. Especially children, because they grow up and change. It is shattering how quickly they change. I get a notification from the photo app to rediscover this day and whompf, I miss Davy as he was this time last year. Sometimes I see those little snippets of video and I get an ache of longing to just hold him once more as he was then. The day it sent me the photo we took of the last breastfeed, oh my heart. Those soft damp curls. That still chubby body, my arms around his back.

It’s bad enough that we miss them when they’ve grown, it’s a brutal world where we miss them while they’re still here, because we’re too busy doing something that FEELS more urgent. And most of the time, that urgency is a myth, and by failing to question it, we’re forgoing the opportunity to create better systems.

It looks to me like we’re valuing the state of being busy, for its own sake. We’re valuing a life without spare time. The term “spare time” is even slightly derogatory! Spare?! What’s spare about time? IT RUNS OUT. But hey, we should be so rushed every day that we don’t pause to remember our time on this planet is finite and every moment we don’t spend with people we love is a moment we can’t get back. Ouch. Fuck. Heavy shit eh.

I took the kids both to the beach one day last week. Bub practised getting onto his hands and knees, lying on a towel on the sand, and Davy threw stones into the sea. A group of students cooed over bub, they were on study leave but had decided to take an afternoon off to blow away the cobwebs. I remember doing that too. Ah, the bliss of the early evening. It’s my favourite time of day, when the sun is still warm but not burning hot, when the air feels balmy but fresh.

Children go to bed early, Davy can’t cope staying up much past 7.30pm now he’s dropped his nap. There’s not much evening left if you’re coming home from a full-time job. One night last week my brother was going to visit but he got held up at work and couldn’t make it. I know as the kids get older, this will seem less of a big deal. Yet at this stage, the gap between the level of involvement my husband, parents, and brother (all in this city!) would like to have and the level they can reasonably have outside of work is huge. They’re missing out. This time is going fast and it will never come back. Babies are only babies for a tiny tiny time.

Class issues

At the very end of the book, Slaughter talks about her own family history. I love reading about family histories. Her stories are fascinating, especially the Belgian grandmother who fled her occupied homeland with two children in tow, to join her husband in the UK. Both of Slaughter’s grandfathers were educated and successful professionals – one a doctor, the other a judge.

My upbringing was upper middle class, but scratch back a few generations to the same time period as Slaughter’s grandparents, and the stories of my great-grandparents create a different perspective. My great-grandmother, a contemporary of Slaughter’s two grandmothers, had a pretty hard life. My grandmother doesn’t complain about her childhood, her reminisces are fond, but the detail of the stories she tells paint the picture of working class struggle anyway. They lived in Liverpool in the 1930s and 40s. There were seven living children, one dead. She and her sister closest in age shared a bed. My great-grandfather had tuberculosis so he had the privilege of an egg for breakfast every morning, despite the stringency of war rations. The children would take turns having the top of the boiled egg. That’s right: every eight days, they got the top of an egg. Growing kids. One Christmas, their mother decided to kill the pet chicken “Hoppy” (he only had one leg), to serve for Christmas dinner. My grandmother remembers none of them wanted to eat Hoppy and her mother was cross at the waste of the special dinner.
When the kids had spare pennies, they would buy a card of peanut butter from the shop: a smear of peanut butter on a scrap of cardboard, to be licked off, savoured. They would eat this treat in secret because their father thought it unhygienic and forbade it. When he was well enough to work, my great-grandfather was a telegraph operator at the post office. When he became too ill, he stayed home and managed the house and my great-grandmother worked as a housekeeper for a doctor’s family. After he died, my great-grandmother remarried. Her second husband was a widower with two children. They had another child together. In the “on demand” economy of the day, the work situation of the second husband was not favourable. He was a dock worker, and would line up in the morning seeking work unloading containers. Here’s how the system operated: the men would stand around, and the big strong ones would be offered work first. There wasn’t always work for everyone. The wives would go down on payday to get the pay packets so that the money wasn’t drunken or gambled away. My grandmother passed her 11-plus but there was no money for the grammar school uniform so it wasn’t an option. She wanted to be an “authoress”.

It’s not that long ago, this history.

Slaughter glowingly discusses the promise in the “gig” economy for mutually advantageous flexibility, and I think of parents in insecure work trying to make ends meet – an under-employment problem in one section of society, a long hours problem in another section of society. I think of our own Working For Families system of family support which favours parents in secure work, through the poorly designed In Work Tax Credit.

I think of my grandmother’s step-father waiting on the docks, hoping there’d be work for him that day, knowing there were ten children at home.

And I think about the union movement campaigning for secure work, for the 40 hour week, for higher wages, for proper support during periods of unemployment. I think about the erosion of the principles of secure and well-paid work, and the gaps in the safety net for people who can’t find suitable work, or who can only work a few hours a week because of health issues or care-giving responsibilities.

Maybe I don’t need that research grant. The solutions have already been tested. We need collective workplace protections. We need social support for families and people out of paid work. We need full economic freedom for caregivers. We need to recognise our whole planet is finite, and our culture of time-saving convenience and disposable consumption is destroying the systems that give us life. We can change the settings if we get the underlying values right. Now that’s the real unfinished business.

This piece was first published anonymously on in August 2016.

Eliza Prestidge Oldfield is a former environmental lawyer and mum of two, living in Wellington. She is currently working in Parliament as an advisor to the Green Party.

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