Invisible Work

If you want to gain Work – Not-Work balance, the first step is learning to see all the work you do as Work.  Our economy and our cultures frequently stand in the way of this. 

In these times, most people labor for money at jobs.  Society excels at rewarding high salaries and the effort that leads to them.  Work harder, work more, and you see the fruits of your labor in more money, more prestige, and more social capital.  Produce more and the economy benefits.   

Except when your labor is unpaid.  If work is what you get paid to do, then unpaid labor is… not work?  As if.  Ask any woman who’s cooking and cleaning and doing laundry for her family if that’s work.  Ask my teenagers whether doing chores is work.  Some may argue that these things are for private benefit, so they’re not Work.  But neither are they Not-Work.   The modern economy has bamboozled us into believing that only work whose benefit accrues to someone else is worthy of recognition as Work:  the paycheck as imprimatur.  Look—these things were work before anybody was paying anybody, and they’re still work now:  Not-job Work

Mind you, that lacuna didn’t happen by accident.  When GDP—the measure of a national economy—was being formalized in the post-war period, a deliberate decision was made to omit “unpaid services of housewives” since collecting the data would be just too difficult.  (You need to read Invisible Women:  Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, by Caroline Criado Perez, FT/McKinsey’s 2019 business book of the year.) “Estimates suggest that unpaid care work could account for up to 50% of GDP in high-income countries, and as much as 80% of GDP in low-income countries.” Since we didn’t count it, we don’t see it. 

The Not-Job Work we don’t see tends to be coded as feminine, and not coincidentally, devalued.  Tasks that are similar or in the same household sphere are similarly invisible, whoever does them.  I’m not saying only women do Not-Job Work.  Rather, I’m saying that because most Not-Job Work is gendered, anyone who does it suffers from its invisibility.  Recently I was listening to an Ezra Klein podcast, “Why Do We Work So Damn Much?”  Ezra and his guest James Suzman, an anthropologist, were discussing the notion that early Homo sapiens got by with only 15 hours or so of work per week.  Suzman said of a contemporary hunter-gatherer society, “Pretty much on the basis of around 15 hours for women and 17 hours work week for men in terms of the food quest, the Ju/‘hoansi were pretty much able to meet all of their basic needs. And then on top of that, they’d work a similar number of hours on domestic household activitiestasks like preparing food, making fires, fixing tools, and so on and so forth [emphasis added]. In other words, that they worked much less than we did.”  Hello, math?  And yet the “hook” is “Hunter-gatherers worked 15-hour weeks.  Why don’t we?”

How would your perspective shift if you recognized all your Not-Job Work as Work?  If you can pay someone to do it for you, it’s work.  Cooking.  Shopping.  Childcare.  Yard and home maintenance.  Errands.  Taxes.  Making appointments.  Filling out school and camp forms.  Driving people around.  Driving yourself around.  Laundry.  Planning meals.  Planning travel.  Paying bills.  You have your own list, I’m sure.  And if you don’t, do you recognize and appreciate who’s doing all those things on your behalf?  Because dang, that’s a lot of work.  It’s not a frippery. 

Still, when it comes to Not-Job Workwomen do a lot more of it, everywhere in the world.  And we must, because society depends on us to.  The pandemic showed us how true this is, as the closure of childcare and virtual schooling drove millions of women out of the paid workforce.   If we all saw Not-Job Work as Work, maybe we’d understand why so few women break the glass ceiling in most of our overachieving, overworking organizations and professions.  Expectations of 60+ hours/week leave little time or energy for not-job work.  Yes, you can have a baby at the Firm, and our maternity benefits are generous.  But—spoiler alert!—children persist in taking a lot of energy, time, and cognitive labor when they’re toddlers, kiddos, tweens, and teens. 

So see Not-Job Work.  See it as Work.  Not only might it enable you to balance your life.  It might also be the unlock to inclusion and to equality for women in the economy.  

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