A new normal: flipping the work-care balance

The University of Toronto's Jennifer Nedelsky proposes new norms that would generate a collectively supported shift in how people allocate their time.

Jennifer Nedelsky with Victoria Lecturer Eddie Clark
Professor Jennifer Nedelsky (left) with Victoria Law Lecturer Eddie Clark.

Western societies face three critical problems that arise out of dysfunctional norms of work and care: unsustainable stress on families; persistent inequality for women and others who do care-work; and policy makers who are ignorant about the care-work life requires. We urgently need collective deliberation about radically transforming these norms. I have a proposal I hope will spark that deliberation.

Norms around work and care can change, and have changed hugely over the past few hundred years.

Think of ideas about how many hours a working day should be — from 12 hours a day to the successful battle for eight hours a day to current norms of 60- to 70-hour working weeks in the financial sector; who should do care-work (should female aristocrats nurse their own babies?); whether the elite should be unemployed (the definition of a gentleman); whether children should work; whether it is ideal for women to be home when their children are young.

Many of these issues are still contested, while some (like the unemployed gentleman) seem like ancient history.

Here is a recent change that captures what I am proposing: a friend of mine asked a young male colleague at a Swedish university whether he would be taking the full paternity leave available to him when his wife had their first child — or whether he would feel career pressure not to take the leave. He answered, “Are you kidding? If I didn’t take the leave, all my colleagues would be saying, ‘Who knew he was such a money-grubbing careerist?’” 

From concern about undermining one’s career by taking paternal leave, the norms had so changed that to fail to take the leave would subject one to colleagues’ disapproval.

That is the sort of change I am looking for. My project is to radically change the kinds of things that generate approval and disapproval among colleagues, friends, family, neighbours and society in general. (Although I am hoping the new norms will be fostered more by support and encouragement than by disapproval.) I am advocating new norms about how everyone should engage in employment and providing care.

My proposal is that all mature, competent adults are expected to be employed part-time (what we would now call part-time): no fewer that 12 and no more than 30 hours a week, and to do unpaid care-work part-time—also somewhere between 12 and 30 hours a week.

People would encourage one another to resist the pressure to take on more work, and to support and appreciate the care they do, as well as the leisure time they take.

In short, the new norms would generate a collectively supported shift in how people allocate their time; indeed how they experience time as the pressures of widespread “time poverty” are eroded.

Conversely, the failure to meet these norms by working long hours or failing to participate in care would generate the sort of concern, disapproval, embarrassment, pity and unease that currently would arise if a competent adult male announced at a party that he had never held a job. One might, for example, offer a “workaholic” advice on where to get help.

But whether the response was kindly or disapproving, it would be clear an important norm was being violated. Thus new norms of work and care would be enforced by serious social constraint (like most norms), not by law enforced by the state. 

My project also addresses the kinds of laws, such as those guaranteeing good part-time work, necessary to facilitate transformation. The project of transforming norms thus also engages the complex relation between laws and norms: there will be no political will to change laws unless there is a change in collective norms, but norm transformation can be enhanced by small changes in the law.

It remains important for my project that the highly demanding norms of unpaid care from all are not enforced by law. No one goes to jail for failing to take up their share of care responsibilities or for working 60 hours a week. But the coercive power of norms is not to be underestimated—they currently extract millions of hours of unpaid care from women all over the world.

My argument is that without the proposed transformation of norms we cannot hope to solve the three pressing problems I noted at the outset that, in various forms, afflict all Western societies.

This article originally appeared on Newsroom.