Care: the Secret to Success

An Interview with Canadian Political Scientist Jennifer Nedelsky

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 4/10/2014

Icare 300 ridCanadian political scientist Jennifer Nedelsky, professor at the University of Toronto, is one of the most innovative voices in the debate on the issues of care, rights and social relations. She is convinced that in our time there is a big priority that, however and unfortunately, remains much in the background of the life of democracies: the profound rethinking of the relationship between work and care, and thus between men and women, the young and the old, the rich and the poor. In fact, it is a critical issue in a world with more and more elderly people, and with elderly people who, thank God, live longer and longer. Without a collective and serious breakthrough in the culture of care in relation to the culture of work, democracy and equality among people are basically denied. I've known professor Nedelsky for a few years (and that explains the informal register of our interview); this time I met her in Italy at the Sophia University Institute of Loppiano (Florence). I asked her some questions on issues that I believe should be placed at the centre of the political and civil life of our country today.

Why do you think there is something wrong with the purchasing of care services in the market, using money so that the richer people can “buy” assistance from poorer people? At the bottom of the market, after all, there is the encounter between different people with different “goods” that can be exchanged for a mutual benefit.

I'm not absolutely against the “care market”. In my kind of system it would be possible to buy a certain amount of care, because in my vision people, for example women, would have more free time for their children and also to work. My proposal is that each person should dedicate some time to care for themselves and for others. What differentiates my approach from others (I'm thinking of those who propose a salary for housewives) is that I wish that all adult citizens (men and women, from all walks of life and from all social classes) were engaged in activities of free (i.e. unpaid) care. I would want them to be able to provide for their own care instead of “buying” someone in the market to do it for them, and I wish they would also take up the care of their family, their parents, and even their communities. For at least 12 hours per week.

We should not forget, either, that behind the “care market” there is also a question of power between people and regions of the world, where whoever is richer can pass work that he does not like on to the poorer ones. Democracies have struggled for centuries to reduce or eliminate the possibility of a powerful few having poor people at their disposal. Today, however, we are reintroducing something like that in a “neo-feudalism” where money has taken the place of blue blood, having the same function of dominance over people. Let's go back to “your” hours of care: those weekly 12 hours would be spent in the family, but, as I understand, also away from home.

Yes, and I am thinking and talking about all types of care. If at a given moment of your life you have important responsibilities (towards your children or elderly parents...) maybe in those years, your care will be donated exclusively (or almost) inside the family. But when these obligations are over, you are free to take care of others within the larger circle of the community to which you belong.

Would you want this “care-for-all” to become mandatory?

Every norm is mandatory, although the forms of enforcement and application vary according to the type of norm. What I think is very important is that the norm that I propose (“part-time care for all and part-time work for all”) should not be imposed from above by the state and its laws, but become effective as a result of the powerful mechanisms of esteem and social judgement. Let me give you an example, and I am not choosing it randomly: because of the social norms about the man-woman relationship in force today, women do a tremendous amount of unpaid work at home, and this is only because of social norms that are very effective and fundamental in our lives. It shows that all the norms “oblige us” and not only the ones dictated by laws. Let me give you another example: in our days, if a man in his thirties attends a party and says he has never worked and does not intend to look for a job either, he admits something that generates a strong negative social judgement, while only one or two centuries ago such a social condition was a sign nobility and social esteem (and envy). I want a world where if you're a person (man or woman) and you show up at a party and introduce yourself saying “I've never done any care work for myself or for others”, you end up simply ashamed because you get strong disapproval from others. And the same should happen to you if you say, “I do not have time to cook, to iron or to take care of my parents or my community because I have a very important job that keeps me completely busy.” We should soon get to say that these lives of “all work and no care” are socially immature and as such they do not deserve our respect. And so we should overcome them the same way as we have surpassed the idea of ​​nobility associated with high income and no work.

It seems clear that such a cultural change should begin not only from the family but also from school.

Yes, I think a lot about schools. I am convinced, for example, that before graduating, every young person should be able to plan their weekly menu, know its costs, know where to go shopping and how to cook the goods they buy. Every adult should be able to do these things, and not only entrust them entirely to the market or to women, because no one has the right to think that there are others who can do these things in their place.

In your books you propose some major changes in the workplace.

Certainly. I think there are two main aspects that are deeply intertwined. The first concerns equality between the sexes. We are living in a time of great stress for families. But there is something that is not emphasised enough: the policy makers are, in general, people who have not done, and are not currently doing any jobs of care. Generally they have no idea about it... would say it is because they are rich or because they are male, or both.

... They know nothing of these fundamental dimensions of human life. So they make policies of care and welfare without having a daily experience of it. So we have to eliminate or reduce the “gap” between those who actually engage in care and those who legislate on it, and then readjust both the workplace and the norms around care. As for work, I wish that no one worked for more than thirty hours per week. And as for care, no adult should do less than 12 hours of care per week. Everyone must provide care, and no one should stay at home unemployed, and everyone must have a paid job that, even if it is part-time work, has to be seen as a “good” job (with full rights, proper wages, etc..). For this reason, the term “part-time” should be revised and it should not be understood as it is understood today, but as a new way to experience work, a new “full time job” for all, along with care. But, I repeat, I believe in a culture change. If you say to someone, ‘My work as a doctor or engineer is really important and I have to work 80 hours a week,’ people should say, ‘You are not a good doctor’ or ‘you are not a good engineer.’ Too much work (and no care) should change from being considered an element of estimation to be seen as a factor of blame..

It's like saying that we would need to change the idea of ​​“social esteem”, which should become a much broader concept than mere professional respect. We should respect workers who are also people with a capability to do anything else besides work, and especially to take care of themselves and others. I fully agree. But don't you think there are jobs that by their nature require much effort and many hours of work to achieve excellence (medicine, science, politics, priesthood, sport...)?

My system would allow you to reach excellence, absolutely. If you are a scientist and you are conducting a complex experiment, you can and you have to work even 12 hours a day and 90 hours a week. There are many jobs that require very intensive periods. But then you have to catch up and take some days off. My thirty hours are an indicative average for the long term. But no one should be able to say, ‘My work is very important, and someone else has to wash my socks.’

So what you say is actually a criticism of the current form of capitalism, isn't it?

Yes and no. I wish that my system was applied immediately, not only in a hypothetical different company. I am certainly concerned about our financial capitalism, especially because of its inequality. Think of the growing gap between wages in our major businesses, which is an economic failure, but also a political and moral one. It was not always so. Capitalism has experienced much lower wages for top managers, and there used to be more democracy. So introducing 12 hours off a week for all would also be an effective way of increasing democracy and true equality between people.
But we must realise that our capitalism today is going in the opposite direction: in the USA the weekly hours of work are now 47-48 on average. I would like a cultural change in the family, in business and in politics. But I would like it to happen immediately, by starting right now to educate ourselves to a different notion of excellence, where excellence is being extended to our ability to love, to care for others. Instead of saying, ‘You're an excellent doctor,’ we should start saying: ‘You are an excellent person, because in addition to your work you also take care of yourself and your community.’ Excellence should be interpreted within the framework of life, and not only at work.

It's as if you were to invite us to look for a new, “relational” flourishing of humanity.

Yes, it is a new idea of​​ “success” or “flourishing of humanity” that we need, where work and money are resized, and the criteria for success are many. But I will not give up on work: I myself love my job, and I hope that more and more people will be able to work following their own vocation, and that, together, they will have time to do many other things that they like doing."


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