Saturday, October 24, 2015

Anne-Marie Slaughter's "Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family": so what about the single and childless?

Author: Anne-Marie Slaughter

Title: “Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family

Publication: 2015: Random House, ISBN 978-0812994568, 352 pages, hardcover, e-book and audio-CD available, three parts, eleven chapters with introduction and “coda" (like in music).

Amazon link is here.

The author is the head of the New America Foundation, and has been a Princeton professor and State Department official.

I bought this book on my new “second” Kindle.  It’s a little pricey for Kindle, and this one might have been easier to grasp with the entire physical book in hand.

On one level, the premise of her book is relatively simple.  Feminism, on a certain level of political correctness, has become equated to women “having it all” and having all the same compensation and opportunities as men.  But in a certain area of logic, that isn’t possible.  And our “western” values, influenced by hyperindividualism, have gotten stilted.  We value personal competitiveness and measurable or visible success, but we don’t “value” caring for others, or caregiving. We also need to change our attitude about proving our “needlessness”.

She develops her narrative in stages.  Part 1 is “Moving Beyond our Mantras” and deals with half-truths about work and family balance.  Part 2 is “Changing Lenses” and Part 3 is “Getting Equal” (and that is not Donald Trump’s “getting rich”.

There is a basic question here about the role of government in all this, and Slaughter “admits” she is a Democrat.  Conservatives believe that learning to care for others is a personal moral virtue tied to sexual morality and confining sex to (traditional) marriage.  Liberals believe it has to do with public sharing of assets, with a wide range of acceptance of personal differences.  But in practice it’s very hard to put into practice the “Everybody’s beautiful” idea from that 1970 song. One of the biggest side effects of our attitude about “caring” as a virtue is that we pay caregivers (often immigrant women) poorly, and get away with it.

Slaughter makes the usual arguments for mandatory paid family leave, and she seems to have an expansive view, that it should include leave for dads as well as moms, and presumably for eldercare for parents too.  But she believes that men need to change (and be allowed to change) their own perspective. Dads should share in active parenting at home more than they do.  She makes a brief reference to the idea that men seem to drop testosterone levels when parenting babies (possibly when tending to pregnant wives).

She does mention the role of same-sex parents, and reassures everyone that same-sex couples can be as successful raising kids as traditional parents.  (That strikes me as saying, well, of course Alan Turing would have been a good father and male role model, which of course he could have been.) She also talks about how single people get treated in some workplaces, but doesn’t seem to be able to come to a clear conclusion on that, because of the logical contradictions within her objectives.

Later she talks about the on-demand economy and workplace (and ROWE or “results-only workplace).  It’s pretty easy to see that sharing of homes and cars and rides can be driven by the economy, and maybe the environment, but a lot of us are not prepared to go into the car and accommodation business on the fly ourselves.   She admits that this is somewhat a mixed-bag.

One of the biggest concerns about mandating family benefits from employers is that they have to be paid for.  Of course, conservatives have pointed out that requiring these benefits could reduce employment.  Slaughter has prepared us somewhat for this in the past by talking about the “toxic workplace”. (IT Job Market blog Sept. 20).  My own experience with this has come from the “salaried” or “exempt” workplace in mostly mainframe information technology.  Throughout the later 80s and then 90s  generally “we” had to work whatever the hours it took to get projects done and implemented, and we did nighttime production support at on our own time and expense.  I can imagine her response to this.  I do think that the workplace for modern tech companies like Google and Facebook would be more flexible than mine was (Amazon has created controversy).

 Furthermore, developers who work on W-2 contracts are supposed to be paid overtime (usually at straight time).  But the work environment that I lived in did encourage “lowballing”.  That is, a single person like me without kids could afford to be paid less, but since I had lower expenses (much less debt and health-care expense) I usually had more disposable income.  That could put a lot of pressure in the workplace on those with families.

But it’s a pretty obvious problem, that if you have pro-family policies of paying for family leave, those without families to support are going to do more of the work for a given amount of pay.  She never directly addresses that.  I talked a lot about this in Chapter 5 of my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book as well as some supplementary essays (1996) from my legacy “Do Ask Do Tell” site. (Go here ).   Elinor Burkett had addressed this viewpoint in her 2000 book "The Baby Boon" [Review March 28, 2006].  Slaughter at one point says you can’t parse the world this way, like somehow unfolds all together.  But you have to.  In Europe (and Canada, Australia, etc) policy has softened this gap with higher taxes.  In Washington DC, the city council proposes a 1% payroll “insurance premium” to pay for family leave benefits.

I’ve always been “conservative” when it comes to something like this, and I hope constructively so.  Even with a “family leave insurance deduction”, you would be in a position to use it or lose it (which could sound like anti-selection to the insurance industry).  In practice, this means that as a single person you will need to become involved somehow in caring for others.  If you don’t have your own kids (or at least adopt kids, which I think Slaughter would agree should be treated as well as having your own, especially for same-sex couples or even singles) you’ll at least get stiffed on this, and eventually you’ll find eldercare even harder to deal with.  That’s what happened to me.

I found it very difficult to give people personal attention on demand – whether my mother (which meant I hired caregivers through an agency) or some kinds of students when I was working as a substitute teacher a few years back – when I didn’t have the experience of courting women and having my own children, hopefully in a marital relationship.  Social attitudes about homosexuality, and the supposedly obligatory place for “normal heterosexual marriage” in socializing (or taming) men (that is, George Gilder’s “Men and Marriage” in 1986 [Review April 12, 2006]), greatly complicate the discussion, as this has all changed greatly in the past couple of decades.  Slaughter admits her gratitude for not being born before the 1950s – I was born in 1943 and dealt with more of this.  An alternative, advanced by the Ninth Street Center in New York City in the 1970s (and now known as the Paul Rosenfels Community) was “polarity” – that box genders have access to the possibility of masculine and feminine personalities, and that some men need to get in touch with their femininity, living perhaps in a somewhat sheltered intentional community, to get away from the cherry-picking of the normal conventional competitive world.  I had to deal with this, too.

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