Work, that is, Care

Commentaries - Beyond Inequality and Poverty

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 01/05/2014

donne-tra-lavoro-e-famiglia ridIf we want to continue to write work as the first word of our social contract, today we have put some other words before it. Among these there is the care that goes along with work. To re-invent work the first thing to do is to recognize that a person's work experience must go beyond paid work (job) to include activities of care provided in the family and in the community. In the twentieth century we confined work to the workplace, to the factory and the office, leaving off all that work that had not been counted or valued only because it took place outside of the "labour market".

Today, however, work will only be reborn by the violation of the boundaries that we have set for it so far, and by an encounter - or re-encounter - with the great and decisive world of caring and primary social and non-merchantable ties.

Our market society is creating a growing inequality, especially in terms of freedom and opportunity. Today, whoever possesses enough money has got the power to buy in the market, in free time and among people for their own care. Those who don't possess enough, above all if they are women or mothers, are increasingly pushed into "traps of poverty" where marriages, family members and children tend to fall, too. And this is a serious form of neo-feudalism that is very under-estimated nowadays.

Work has always been the great means and the primary place of making freedom and equality the substantial principles and not only formal things in our democracies. However, this humanism of work was born and it grew up in a society that was created onto a strong social division of labour: men worked away from home and women took care of the children, the ill and the elderly. In the past decades we have been revisiting the part of the social contract on work in order to guarantee equal opportunities of work and civil careers for women, too. It is an epochal change that, however, does not happen on the axis of attention and caring - therefore, welfare. It brought about a serious consequence, though: women, and especially married women with small children or bigger kids (and perhaps also some elderly family members) find themselves in a substantially discriminatory situation involving great social and professional disadvantage in the most determining years of an individual's life (25-40) which causes great difficulties not only for them but also their children, all their family, relationships and therefore, communities. In fact, these women tend to not only work more at home, but sleep less, too (on average 10 hours less per week), have less time to dedicate to political and economic life and suffer more (than men) when work becomes a possibility and a must for them they feel that they are not giving enough time and care to their children and elderly parents. The list of consequences does not end here: a recent North American study, for example, has revealed that today, in this situation, for the first time psychic illnesses of children have increased beyond all other illnesses.

There is a great need to reconsider everyone's work in connection with the care that every adult citizen should be able to offer. Therefore, in order to improve the quality of family and social relationships and to reduce the asymmetries between men and women we should reduce the work hours and facilitate the re-distribution all the activities of attention and care of  themselves, their family members and also the children and elderly of our next door neighbours, communities and common goods. And this "part-time caretaking for everyone" should really be for everyone: doctors and judges, blue-collar workers and politicians; for the youth, adults and the elderly... We should begin thinking that dedicating time and energy to ourselves and others is part of our duties as citizens and the concrete expression of the principle of fraternity and solidarity. Similarly, bringing up children and assisting the elderly is work, and it is a great contribution towards the common good which should be publicly recognised.

Canadian philosopher Jennifer Nedelsky suggests, for example, that this part-time job of caring should consist in at least 12 hours weekly for each grown-up person, of which at least two hours should be spent outside of the family.  These are also work hours that should be deducted from those worked away from home, but considered in the overall "work hours pack" of every citizen (including those spent in the market-company and those with caring for family and community).

Utopia, so say many. Political projects and substantial democracy, so say a few. What is certain is that work should be reconsidered including caretaking that, in turn, should not be "outsourced" to the families or the state, or, perhaps the for-profit companies. Taking care of ourselves and each other can and should become an ordinary task of every man and woman. The demand for care in the world is rapidly increasing, but the offer is in continuous and progressive decrease. And so its "price" is becoming too high. Therefore, to reconsider work in combination with caretaking means to be aware that our post-modern and fragmented societies need new social bonds, new encounters and weaves in ordinary relationships. Otherwise work will not be created any more, or there won't be enough created for all. Happy May Day to all.

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