an old take on a new work life balance

Once upon a time – before the industrial revolution – maybe even before clocks – the terms ‘work-life-balance’ wouldn’t have meant very much. Work and life were pretty well the same thing – for women and men.  People got up with the sun and went to bed with the sun; no electric light, no books, no internet.

Men mainly worked in the fields (dinner at midday) and women in the home. At harvest time everyone worked flat out – children as well – from dawn to as long as it took! They were still at home however.

Women spun yarn, wove fabric, made clothes: they tended poultry, milked cows and had vegetable gardens. They cooked meals and cleaned up. No contraception so multitudes of babies (many died – along with their mothers). But work-life balance – what could it mean? How did you tell the difference?

It was the industrial revolution that was responsible for separating work and life.  Work was regulated – and it was for much longer than 9 till 5! Some women also worked in factories (for less pay) and in dreadful circumstances: (International Women’s Day has its origins in the poverty stricken garment workers of New York who on March 8 1907, went on strike; they lived and worked in appalling conditions and often remained at their machines up until they gave birth – and they then had to return to the workplace for the next paltry pay.)

Garment Workers Strike Chicago 1915


The industrial revolution fostered the breadwinner’s salary that justified paying women less for the same work. Or paying them not at all! Respectable women remained at home (they had a breadwinner); women often still worked extremely long hours, but their labour didn’t usually count as it was unpaid! (Interesting arrangement! No word for this historical development though.)

In the past few decades this pattern has dramatically changed. More women have come into the workforce – and a common criticism directed at the women’s movement is that it has achieved for women the right to have two jobs when previously they were allowed only one!

More women are now more educated and more women have opted for career paths – and these greater demands at their workplace are often at the expense of family life at home.

In the last few months books such as Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg: The Richer Sex, (meaning women!) Liza Mundy: and The End of Men and the rise of women, by Hanna Rosin have enjoyed considerable publicity. They all document the rise of the woman worker – at professional and corporate level. And the subtext is frequently the challenges women face in trying to have it all – work and life.

Most of the women whose successful lives and careers are documented in these new feminist books are in the new tech-industries (post industrial revolution). Google, Facebook – Silicon Valley types. All of these women who have extraordinarily demanding jobs also have the opportunity (sometimes fought for and self created) to make flexible arrangements for work and life.

It looks a bit like living at work (clearly some of them were thriving on the long hours and delights of meetings and creativity); and working at home – where they could participate in family life. This often meant doing emails late into the night and answering international calls before dawn.

Some of these privileged high flying women didn’t talk about balance – they talked about merging work and life; and maybe that’s what they are doing – a new take on an old way of life.

Currently, does using skype late at night to do deals with someone on the other side of the world equate with getting up in the early hours of the morning as women once did to deliver a calf?

Work, life and location have changed so rapidly in the past decade that it’s almost anyone’s guess what work/life might look like in the future. What is clear is that much more will be created at home. With cheap 3D printers as much a necessity as a TV is now, everyone will be able to download the instructions from the NBN to produce every desirable kitchen gadget, or to replace any broken light bulb etc! Not to mention the possibilities of jewellery making, dress design, customized shoes, movies, music –  or health monitoring devices. The possibilities are endless – for work and life – at home!

Will women have three jobs? Or will the merger of life and work at home be the opportunity for literally creating a working life?

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