What world do we want to live in?
With many people starting to contemplate life after the lockdown, there seems to be a sentiment bubbling just below the surface; that some may not want to return to working in an office. Looking to trade in the rat race for a more comfortable commute to an adjacent room and swapping the canteen for virtual coffees. To many this might seem unthinkable, they are fed up of being cooped up in their homes for last couple of months, which is understandable but to others, this could be the start of a new way of life.
I’m in the privileged group of people who can work full-time from home and to a large degree the lockdown has had little impact on my working life. In some areas I’ve even become more disciplined, making a conscious effort to differentiate my work life boundaries. Given much of my day is spent on meetings with people in other countries anyway, the only big difference is the lack of chance interactions with people in the corridors, so the gossip is much harder to find out. It came as no surprise when our CEO told us we would be not be going back to the office as quick as other sectors. I assume many who work in IT will likely be in the same boat and some may also opt to stay away from the office after we regain a sense of normality. The way I have been working for the last 3 months is very much going to be my new normal, at least for the foreseeable future.
Facing the new reality
Through discussions with others and working through my own thought process on the whole thing, I was drawn back to a question I had around the topic of equality, specifically around the initiatives to get more women into IT. While I support the idea of having more a more balanced workplace, there has always been something that bugged me about the way the discussions have been framed and the recent events in the world brought it a little bit clearer.
The key issue that has been niggling at me, is that while we are looking to get more women into the workplace, there is little discussion of a counter-balance of men staying at home or any discussion about the value of stay at home parents for that matter.
I don’t fault those involved in these discussion for this, there is a clear goal in mind and this is the complete opposite of it. However, to me it feels like there was a slight of hand pulled by some unseen force, tricking us into a mindset that everyone should work. We should all strive to be the best workers we can be. An undiscussed casualty of this mindset is that stay at home parents are not something that society wants to support any more. In rare cases people seem to actively scorn the idea of having someone stay at home, as it is somehow lazy and unambitious. Why wouldn’t you want to work? Can’t you just get a child minder? What about your career?
The distinction between those that would advocate for more stay at home parents and those that champion the upward mobility provided by career progression, seem to be unhelpfully burdened with conservative and progressive labeling. Rather than helping to clarify the points and creating solid foundations for a fair and balanced discussion, this seems to be pitting each group against each other. As with a lot of things today, the Us Vs Them mindset is far too pervasive. It creates unnatural extremes on either end of the discussion and takes the broader, more common goal of encouraging individual freedoms and personal choice off the table, further deepening my sense of some unseen actor at play.
There are good reasons to hold any position in this discussion. Striking a balance of supporting women during pregnancy and offering support when returning to work is important. So too is the choice that they don’t necessarily have to return to work. The options, both economically and socially should be there to support whichever choice is best, for all involved. Be it childcare, technical catch up programs, building communities or just making it affordable to have a single income household. There is also value in progressing in the workplace, it is good for our self-esteem to feel recognised and appreciated for what we do and to be rewarded for it. For those with children it can afford more opportunities in education, healthcare, hobbies or holidays.
In each option there are trade-offs and sacrifices. Stay at home parents can fall behind their colleagues in their career and may reach a point where they would have to completely reskill to go back into the workforce. On the flip side if we are so obsessed with providing for our children, we may never see them, as we are working 80 hour weeks trying to afford their lifestyles.
This brings me to an interesting observation made about one of the most famous cartoon fathers out there, Homer Simpson. When the show first started in 1989 it was perfectly normal for him to have a house in the suburbs, with 3 kids, 2 cars and 2 pets, all supported on his income as a low level employee in a nuclear plant. They were a literal nuclear family. However in the 30+ years since he first started working, it is now nothing short of a miracle that he is able to afford what he does on a single income. While this is obviously a cartoon, it offers a measure of how much society has changed. We have gone from a society where a single earner can support an entire family of 5, to one where both parents working can sometimes barely make ends meet with only one child.
It feels like there is some twisted joke everyone is missing! We are all so desperate to achieve this grand lifestyle sold to us, by someone. Everyone is getting richer and can have more things at lower prices, yet people have never been so cash strapped. Most twisted of all is the idea that it is better to put our energies towards some faceless corporation, so that we can pay for our children to have a great life, than it is to invest the same energy in them directly. There are some signs of hope that this is not all a cruel joke.
Addressing the balance
HPE, the company I work for, is one of a very few companies offering father's 6 months paid paternity leave. This is an amazing step forward to help fathers spend time with their children and share the load as a family. At a recent all Ireland talk, a manager shared his insights into how the program has been for him, as one of the first participants in it and it sounds great (sleepless nights notwithstanding). Outside of this, some companies are starting to experiment with 4 day weeks, which is showing great promise in terms of productivity but also that we may finally get to the promises made during the industrial revolution, that we would work less hours through increased automation. Better 200 years late than never.
Even though these are great steps forward, it still feels like an isolated gesture. There is no societal conversation behind them, no focus on a shift to have parents spend more time at home with their kids. Not that I would expect this from companies, they are simply levelling the playing field on paid parental leave. The responsibility to have this conversation falls to us, the members of society. Why aren’t more parents opting to stay at home with their children? When did we all agree to this model that both parents should work? Are we really moving in the right direction as a society?
This is where I feel the current situation in the world has really opened people's eyes, to the things that are truly important. Very few people are bemoaning the fact that clothes shops or electronics stores were closed. We miss social venues, like coffee shops and pubs, where we are able to see our friends and have human interaction. I’ve heard many people talking about how great it is to be able to spend more time with their kids, doing things they haven’t had time for before. Obviously it got a bit extreme being locked in with them for over 3 months; with no school, camps or other outlets. Compounded with the inability to talk to other adults, in person or travel any distance, it was very isolating. That said, there are heartwarming stories of families really bonding during this, so it seems worth continuing, in a more sustainable form.
So as we consider reopening our respective countries, what sort of world do we want to go back to? Do we all want to rush back to a world where we have all family members out of the house for the maximum amount of time each day or can we start demanding a world where we don’t have to have two income households? Where we don’t have to cripple ourselves with child care costs, to afford “the best” for said children? Where we can financially support flexible working arrangements for both parents?
This may not be an option for most, I appreciate that a growing number of people already had financial difficulties and this situation is only making things worse for them. To those that can see it as an option though, I think there is a brief window where we can decide what world we choose to go back to, as it is a choice. We may not be able to effect change overnight but making conscious choices moving forward, we can build towards what we want and ideally what is best for everyone. A lot of people have already started making these choices, from shopping local, planing staycations, cooking at home more or learning to bake. We’ve made social changes to check in with people more, to see how they are doing, where before we could have gone weeks without talking. Little things go a long way.
As many people have rightly pointed out, the world is not going to be the same after this but we do still have a time to think on what should it look like. We can shape our societies through small actions and I think a frank discussion on this topic is a small action that we can all take.
This is a break from the majority of my articles where I come to a neat conclusion on a topic. This one I’m leaving open to anyone that would like to continue the discussion, as I only have a single perspective on it.
For those that know me, I’m not expecting, so any references to “our children” is in the “royal we” sense.
I post this now as I feel we only have a brief window before everything just goes back to “normal” and that unseen force puts us back on a course to whatever world “they” have in mind for us.