The Joy of Work?
The assumption that women experience unpaid housework and child care more negatively than paid work bears critical examination. For many (if not most) women, empirical evidence suggests that this is not the case. In developing the Day Reconstruction Method, a sophisticated approach to assessing how people feel during their daily activities, Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues surveyed 909 employed women on how they had felt during sixteen different activities and interactions with eight different partners on the previous day, and analyzed their responses. Overall, respondents reported a much higher degree of positive affect than negative affect on all activities and interactions. In comparing specific experiences, however, the data showed that on average the employed women expressed a higher degree of enjoyment for shopping, preparing food, taking care of their children, and doing housework than for working at their jobs—an activity that was ranked at the next-to-lowest level of enjoyment, just above commuting to work. Similarly, they experienced a higher level of negative affect while at work than while cooking, cleaning, shopping, and caring for their children. When it came to interactions with different partners, the women ranked interactions with their children as more enjoyable than those with clients/customers, co-workers, and bosses.54
Of course, one study—even one by a highly distinguished team of researchers—does not dispose of the “problem that has no name,” in part because this is a study of employed women, which does not tell us how stay-at-home mothers experience their daily activities. Employed women might find cooking, shopping, cleaning, and caring more enjoyable because they usually spend less time on these activities than stay-at-home mothers do. It would be impossible, however, to compare the level of enjoyment experienced by stay-at-home mothers during various activities throughout a particular day to the level of enjoyment experienced during paid employment that same day. As Kahneman and his colleagues indicate, other studies based on global ratings showed that while interactions with children topped the list of enjoyable activities, shopping and housecleaning were rated below working at one’s job. They note, however, that these ratings were less rigorous and more prone to discourage socially inappropriate responses than the assessments of specific episodes in their own study. Moreover, while these types of studies provide a highly systematic account of how people experience specific episodes of activity throughout a day, they beg the question of whether discrete affective responses to daily activities actually add up to a personal sense of happiness and fulfillment. (Is a state of happiness more than the sum of temporary pleasures?) A national survey of 2,020 adults in 2007 reports that 85 percent of parents rated relationships with their young children as the aspect of their lives most important to their personal happiness and fulfillment—far above their jobs or careers.55
Although the empirical research is inconclusive, however one interprets the data they do not comport with the pervasive feminist view of paid employment as an everyday source of enjoyment for women and unpaid family work as a source of tedium. The voices of those in the privileged occupations speak most often of their own felicitous work experiences and their perceptions of the gratification that men in their circles reap from work. It is an authentic assessment based on a selfreferential slice of reality, which fails to reflect the working lives of a large proportion of women and men in jobs marked by stress, tedium, and emotional exhaustion.
Thirty years ago researchers in applied psychology identified the problem of work-related burnout.56 Burnout has since become a burgeoning field of study, with competing empirical definitions that place varying emphases on emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and lack of personal accomplishment (according to the widely used Maslach Burnout Inventory); fatigue (from the Copenhagen Burnout Inventory); and exhaustion and disengagement (from the Oldenburg Burnout Inventory).57 In all accounts, burnout bears a curious resemblance to Friedan’s problem that has no name.
Women seeking to escape the oppressive drudgery of unpaid work for the pleasures of employment supposedly enjoyed by men might ask why the average male worker hastens to begin retirement as quickly as possible. The evidence here is quite firm. During the past ten to fifteen years many of the industrialized countries have made policies and plans to raise the normal age of retirement either directly or indirectly by increasing the required period of contributions. Meanwhile, voting with their feet, an increasing proportion of men in the advanced industrialized nations have been exiting employment well before the standard age of retirement. In nine major OECD countries, the average percentage of men ages fifty-five to fifty-nine who were employed declined from 72.2 percent in 1987 to 69.2 percent in 1999—meaning that by 1999 almost one man in three was retired by his mid-to-late fifties. For men ages sixty to sixty-four, the percentage declined more steeply from 45.1 percent in 1987 to 40.6 percent in 1999. In 1999, on average 50 percent of the men in these countries withdrew from the labor force at 62.3 years of age or younger (the age for women was 61.1) and 25 percent of the men withdrew from the labor force at 58 years of age or younger (57.4 for women). Since 1987, the overall trend has moved clearly toward early retirement, and despite a slight tick upward in recent years, the average age of retirement still remains well below sixty-five.58
Some suggest that this trend has been spurred by generous pension benefits that create incentives for early retirement— either inadvertently or by design. Although pension incentives may be a factor contributing to early retirement, the attitudes expressed in international surveys convey sober evidence about the presumed benefits of work. Findings from the International Social Survey Program’s 1997 Work Orientation Study, which included more than ten thousand respondents in eight OECD countries, suggest that given the choice, the majority of those in retirement would not have preferred to remain employed.
A close look at the data shows that responses vary somewhat depending on how the survey questions were posed. When asked, “Suppose you could change the way you spend your time,” an eight-country average of only 8.8 percent of retired respondents answered that they “wanted to spend more time in a paid job.” Among two other groups outside of the labor force, an eight-country average of 28.7 percent of those currently keeping house said they wanted to spend more time in a paid job, and surprisingly an average of only 55.8 percent of unemployed workers indicated wanting to spend more time in a paid job. Similarly, among those with part-time jobs, only 28 percent wanted to spend more time working.
When the question was posed in a slightly different form—“Suppose you could decide on your work situation at present, which would you choose?”—an eight-country average of 37.5 percent of retired respondents indicated that they would choose a full-time job. What accounts for the seeming contradiction between only 8.8 percent of retirees wanting to spend more time in a paid job and 37.5 percent of retirees who would choose a full-time job if they could decide on their work situation? One explanation is that the latter respondents might have interpreted being able to decide on their work situation as a license to select the most satisfying jobs they could imagine—desirable positions of authority, status, temporal autonomy, and free travel to conferences—which they would be pleased to enter on a full-time basis. The retirees’ responses to a third question lends a certain degree of credibility to this explanation. When asked how easy or difficult they thought it would be to find “an acceptable job” if they were looking actively, an eight-country average of only 14 percent felt an acceptable job would be easy to find, which is much closer to the 8.8 percent who indicated that they would want to spend more time in a paid job.59
These findings gain further support from a 2005 study of 6,244 employed men and women in ten European countries. Although there was some variation among the countries, overall a high proportion of the respondents indicated their in-
tention to retire early—more than 50 percent in half of the countries. Moreover, when the respondents were divided into three groups according to the quality of their jobs, an unambiguous pattern emerged across the ten countries, with employees in the lower-quality jobs consistently expressing the intention to retire early more often than those in less-stressful jobs.60 In the United States a 1999 Newsweek poll of 492 workers found that 39 percent of the respondents hoped to retire before their fifty-first birthday, if they could afford it, and 26 percent said they expected to retire before age sixty.61
Many workers are retiring from the labor force as quickly as they can, most people who choose household work do not seem anxious to trade for more time in paid jobs, and even many unemployed people express little desire to spend more time in paid jobs. These findings suggest the need for a frank corrective in the prevailing discourse on work and family life led by academics and other members of the occupational elite. It is not entirely uncommon for academics to advance revelations about their personal circumstances as universal truths. A classic example is Sigmund Freud’s formulation of the Oedipus complex, which drew heavily from his childhood feelings of love for his mother and jealousy of his father. Writing to his friend Wilhelm Fliess in 1897, Freud made it clear that after reflecting on this personal experience he now considered such feelings “a universal event in early childhood.”62
When members of the occupational elite write and talk about the joys and personal fulfillments of work, they should admit that what they really mean is their work. They are not referring to the work of those in their own institutions who stay chained to desks all day, clean floors, or empty wastepaper baskets—the mostly female clerical and cleaning staff. They are not talking about the subway, taxi, and bus drivers who take them to work, the cooks and waiters who make it possible for them to do lunch, or the clerks serving behind the counters in the stores they pass on the way to work. And they certainly are not recalling Marx’s indictment that “factory work exhausts the nervous system to the uttermost, it does away with the many-sided play of muscles, and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and intellectual activity.”63 But one need not invoke Marxist rhetoric to recognize that while some jobs are interesting and fulfilling, the majority simply are not, and are unlikely to become so.
Of course, work is necessary. According to Freud, “No other technique for the conduct of life attaches the individual so firmly to reality as laying emphasis on work.” But here he was talking about professional work, and abilities and gifts accessible to only a few people. “And even to the few who do possess them,” he said, “this method cannot give complete protection from suffering.”64 The idea of attaining happiness through work, while true for a fortunate few, makes a virtue of necessity for the many.