Monday, July 20, 2009

Balancing Act

I was listening to Marketplace Money this weekend, and heard a commentary from their Economics Editor, Chris Farrell. He was critical of former General Electric CEO Jack Welch's comments that "there is no such thing as work-life balance; there are work-life choices," and that women who choose to spend significant amounts of time with their children do so at the expense of advancement prospects. One thing that struck me was that that Mr. Farrell equates having "a family" (in its form as a euphemism for "children"), as in simply having children in the home, with being an active and engaged parent. If people could simply hand over the responsibility of day-to-day child care to others who would do the job well, through "high-quality day care and good after-school programs," there would be no need to make trade-offs.

You could, if you chose, boil Jack Welch's comments down to a simple truism: "There are so many hours in day, and people who are willing to spend more of those hours advancing the interests of their businesses are likely to do better than people who spend fewer hours. Choose which is more important to you." You could then boil Mr. Farrell's comments down to: "Children are important, so business should make it easier to choose to have children by reducing the amount of time that parents need to directly spend with them, allowing parents more time to compete for promotions with their childless co-workers, while still thinking themselves responsible parents."

Okay, all well and good. But Mr. Farrell never satisfactorily answers one important question: Why should business be in the habit of choosing which of its employees' outside choices to support?

The impact of family friendly policies like these would be dramatic. We'd end up with more competition from women for the leadership ranks of society. We'd also have better family values.
The more I think about this, the more I come to conclude that Mr. Farrell actually hates children. Maybe what we need isn't more competition from women, but less from men. To the degree that women are in this situation because it's considered okay for working fathers to prioritize their careers above their families (spouses and children alike) I don't think that the answer is empowering working mothers to also routinely work long hours. It seems that if we're going to change social structures and rewards to change behaviors, we're better off prompting fathers to spend more with their wives and children, and pushing the childless to get the hell out of the office and go take a vacation someplace where power lunches and laptops are considered capital offenses. Since when does better family values come from the freedom of parents to pass their children off to others so that we can tell them that they shouldn't feel guilty about seeing their offspring as impediments to climbing the power structure?

I suspect that the issue with career versus family isn't that family isn't important enough. It's that career is too important - after all, Mr. Farrell tells us, it's doing well in the business world that counts.