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Inching Closer to Achieve Work-Life Balance for All

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) made headlines when he told GOP House members that he would not sacrifice family time should he be elected as the next Speaker of the House.

After sharing his vision for a renewed Republican Party during an Oct. 20 news conference, Ryan said, “I cannot and will not give up my family time,” which would mean that he would not “be on the road as often as previous Speakers.”

Reaction has been mixed.

Some, including a Morning Joe panel moderated by left-leaning host Mika Brezinski, praised Ryan’s stance as a positive contribution to the ongoing conversation about work-life balance.

Others, as Politico’s Marianne Levine documents, criticized him for using his influence to obtain personal work-life balance while opposing federal family leave legislation to help others do so.

Citing Ryan’s statement, and Vice President Joe Biden’s decision to prioritize his family’s grieving process over his presidential ambitions, NPR’s Michel Martin wonders if we’ve finally turned a corner toward a more productive conversation on this topic.

“It is a new day if these two men … can each say, without hesitation or ridicule, that he needs to be home for dinner and not just on Thanksgiving,” she writes. “It’s hard to describe what a big deal that is unless you are up close and personal with the lifestyle, not just of politics, but of many jobs in the current era: the 24/7 on-call expectation, the constant deadlines, the schmoozing and networking that go on and on into the wee hours, night after night.”

While both Ryan’s and Biden’s actions are laudable, seeing “a new day” will require a broader shift in our approach to work-family balance – at both an individual and a systemic level.

At the end of August, I wrote that “working conditions, treatment of employees and balancing labor with rest are particularly poignant topics as Labor Day (Sept. 7) approaches, a holiday that emerged from the struggle for improved working conditions, specifically the pursuit of an eight-hour workday.”

While true, these issues need to be addressed from pulpits and podiums year-round, not only on Labor Day weekend.

The importance of the family not only for individual well-being but also for national stability and fruitfulness is one of the few agreed upon perspectives in a society divided on a multitude of issues.

Baptist social reformer Walter Rauschenbusch summarized well the importance of the family, calling it “the foundation of morality, the chief educational institution, and the source of nearly all the real contentment among [people]. To create a maximum number of happy families might well be considered the end of all statesmanship.”

Written in 1907, few today would likely challenge the core sentiment he expressed.

Good intentions and personal initiative by individuals can result in positive changes.

For example, we can avoid “phubbing” or being “alone together” during family time. We can focus on quality time together, which new research suggests is more important than quantity time.

Yet individual action without broader, systemic changes cannot sufficiently address the issue.

If the family is as important as most folks suggest it is, then the U.S. must reorganize society in a way that promotes and encourages their flourishing. This will entail:

  • A shift from being guided primarily by profit margins, a reality that Pope Francis has critiqued, in which the bottom line is a higher priority than the well-being of employees and in which the plight of the impoverished receives less attention than the slightest stock market fluctuation.
  • A shift from the mindset that unrestrained, laissez-faire capitalism is humanity’s salvation and that dismisses any critique of this system as socialism or communism, or sees any federal action to address wages, healthcare, expand the social safety net or establish paid leave for maternity as a “government takeover.”
  • A shift from a minimum wage to a living wage so folks working full time can live above the poverty line and not require either government assistance or employment at multiple part-time jobs (requiring odd hours and little time at home) to make ends meet.

It is possible to work diligently and faithfully at a job and not neglect one’s family. Folks can work hard, be reliable employees who contribute significantly to the company’s success and maintain healthy work-life boundaries.

Responsibility for this pursuit certainly involves the individual/family unit, but the way society is organized (which involves government oversight and regulation) impacts how much balance the individual can achieve.

The pursuit has never been simple, straightforward or easy. Progress, while sometimes slow, has happened. Yet much remains to be accomplished in seeking the common good of all.

If “the health of society rests on the welfare of the home,” as Rauschenbusch asserted, then it is worth the time and effort to dialogue, discuss and debate about how best to structure the social order to promote both family well-being and a strong, vibrant workforce and economy.

Perhaps Ryan’s and Biden’s statements will not be too quickly lost in the endless stream of our 24/7 news cycle, but will invigorate and expand the conversation about how best to encourage and achieve work-life balance.

Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachDawes_Jr.