Much of my work over the past decade has concerned the ways careers are navigated in tandem with commitments that exist off the job. It is clear that the route to the very best jobs — like that of the tenured college professor — requires hard work, more than a modicum of luck and sacrifice. What types of sacrifices are involved? Some of the professors at Ithaca College are living hundreds of miles from their spouses. Others have had children later in their lives than they would have preferred, or are even forgoing having children altogether. Some have spouses who gave up careers in order to trail along to Ithaca. In my most recent book, “The Work-Family Interface,” I show that even in the very best jobs out there, friction exists, making it difficult to provide care for children, aging parents or family members with special needs — and these problems are vastly compounded for workers who occupy bad jobs.
Sometimes my fellow work-family scholars think “balance” is needed — just enough family and just enough work. While I do not disagree that some level of balance is necessary to live a fulfilled life, I also think this is the wrong way to frame the issue at hand. One problem with the balance metaphor is that it assumes the less work you and I do, the more we can give to our families, or vice versa. But in reality, if I worked less, my family would gain very little because I love my job. And the college would be no better off if I abandoned my family, as my wife and children keep me grounded. The key point here is that work and family do not necessarily have to be at odds with one another. This is why I suggest that we replace the “balance” metaphor with a focus on “fit” and “harmony.” Don’t think of a seesaw, think of interlocking gears.
When work and family are not harmonized, bad things happen. Escalating family responsibilities create problems on the work front: worker attendance suffers, employee turnover rates escalate and productivity deteriorates, as does morale. When work responsibilities escalate, the capacity to provide care can suffer as well. To compensate, exercise and sleep may be foregone and stress may transfer to other family members. However, escalations of responsibilities do not necessarily have to create strain. For example, consider what happens if I have a young child and my dean says I need to teach 8 a.m. classes. Now I have a problem — unless I find a quality day-care center that is available and affordable. What a world of difference that will make! Yet this simple resource needed to create fit, safe places for children to be cared for is commonly out of reach.
What will create harmony? It is important to recognize that most working families are already doing the absolute best they can. This reality points to the need for new structural arrangements, such as livable wage laws and access to flexible work options. Professors have these resources at the college, but many others in Ithaca do not. We can look to our neighbors in Western Europe to observe the benefits of entitlement programs that will benefit everyone, such as paid family leave, rights to paid vacations and a host of workplace protections. If we follow that lead, be prepared to pay much higher taxes. Evidence indicates that this will be money well spent. But getting there from here requires an important step — recognizing that the resolution of work-family strain is not just a matter of finding the right balance.