Getting it all in balance

Cathat-balancing-act

There is lots of talk about work/life balance. Work/life balance is an ideal that is frequently aspired to, but rarely achieved. However, I’m going to try and explain in this post why I think that it this is not a very helpful way to think about your life and why we need some alternatives.

First, and most picky, the idea of holding your work and life in balance is simply nonsensical. Work is a part of life, it isn’t an alternative to it. Life is a bigger concept than work and it can’t really be held in balance with something that is actually part of it. It is like talking about the apple/core balance.

However (picky aside) I do know what is meant – on one hand you have work on the other you have everything else. So work and non-work balance might be better. However that won’t do either as it suggests a particular type of accommodation that is probably unachievable given the current way we organise work. I spend more waking time at work than I do doing anything else. What is more neither work nor non-work are simply one thing and neither are simply good or simply bad. I have things that I like at work (writing, talking to colleagues) and things that I hate (filling in forms, sitting in meetings that I didn’t organise). Similarly I have things that I like at home (cooking, playing guitar, watching Everybody Loves Raymond) and things that I hate (cleaning, fixing our endlessly breaking house). So perhaps it would be better to talk about the love/hate balance?

The work/life balance rhetoric implicitly suggests that all of work is bad and all of life is good – but this doesn’t come close to describing my experience. However the love/hate balance is probably too extreme so it might be better to replace it with the interesting/boring balance. It seems a reasonable aspiration to try and organise our lives so that they are more interesting (whether in or out of work) and less boring. But once you start to think like this you realise that you don’t want a balance at all. I want all interesting and no boring please! However, I realise that some boring is necessary to make the interesting possible, the two things are related, but I definitely want to move ever towards the interesting rather than to keep them in balance.

But interesting/boring probably isn’t enough. Our lives are not simple enough to be a matter of balancing two things. I want my life to be interesting, but not at the expense of my relationship and family. I could spend all my time as an adrenaline junky throwing myself off bridges with an elastic band attached to my feet, but when would I see my family? Similarly I want to be a good husband and father, but not at the expense of my friends. I also want to have fun with my friends but not at the expense of being a good citizen. Gosh, there is a lot to keep in balance isn’t there. It is almost as if you can’t really do it all, almost as if life is a messy business with no simple solutions.

So I think that the metaphor of the scales just doesn’t work for our lives, it is too simple. We cannot aspire to be “in balance” all we can hope for is balancing. The Cat in the Hat knows a lot about that as the picture shows. It may not be elegant or ideal, but doing our best not to drop too many things too often might be about the best we can hope for.

A recording of the presentation that I gave to the Beyond Distance Research Alliance earlier today

I enjoyed myself at a very interesting day organised by the Beyond Distance Research Alliance at the University of Leicester.

I talked about social media and research.

If you are interested in what I said they have recorded it and put it online at https://connect.le.ac.uk/p52636574/

See you online for #dr12vitae

If you’ve been following this blog you will have noticed that there is a lot of activity around an event that I keep calling #dr12vitae. The event is actually Vitae’s annual Digital Researcher event which I’ve now been involved with for three years. See all of my blog posts relating the Digital Researcher.  Essentially it is a big workshop/conference at the British Library where we try and convince researchers that there is value in getting involved in social media.

One of the good things about the event is that there will be a lot happening online over the course of today. If you have got any time to follow the event then wander along to http://www.vitae.ac.uk/researchers/346891/Digital-Researcher-online.html and follow the #dr12vitae on Twitter. This year we are making a real effort to broadcast as much of the content online either before the event or on the day.

See you online!

CareerMotion

Amongst all of the controversy and debate about the relative value of online career support the casual observer might note that evidence about impacts is pretty thin on the ground. This is why it is particularly interesting to have a look at this recent Canadian study.

The study looked at the impact of a web based career intervention on the careers of post-secondary education graduates. It is published online at http://www.careermotion.ca/en/files/1313/2639/2243/en_cmreport.pdf

The project starts from the position that too many graduates are failing to fulfill their potential and that they are ending up in non-graduate jobs. I’m not sure that I go along with this assumption entirely but I get the point and I can see that there is value in providing new graduates with access to career support. The role of online support is particularly important for this group because (1) they are rarely prioritised by government for access to career support and (2) because they (usually) have high levels of IT/digital literacy.

The report cites a number of career and labour market information sources such as Alberta’s ALIS (www.alis.alberta.ca) and Manitoba’s Career Development web (www.manitobacareerdevelopment.ca) alongside the federal governments Working in Canada portal (www.workingincanada.gc.ca). However the CareerMotion intervention that is described in this report is of a different kind as it offers a structured learning environment rather than merely an information source.

The report is based on exploring the impact of Career Motion through a randomised control trial. The trial sought to measure both attitudes e.g. via the Career Decision Making Self-Efficacy and the labour market position of the individuals in the study. This quantitative study was then supported with qualitative focus groups.

The evidence suggests that the CareerMotion intervention was effective over both the short and long (1 year) terms in increasing individuals attitude, confidence and positive orientation towards the labour market. However the effects in terms of labour market outcomes were more marginal although those participants who had recieved the intervention reported that they were happier with their employment one year on. The study also suggests that those who use the online tool more see greater results.

The study also concludes that the effects of CareerMotion are in line with other kinds of career interventions. The study also found a broad degree of user satisfaction with the online approach although people would have like more information about job search and employment opportunities and more direct support from a career counsellor.

This report is a major contribution to our understanding of the impact of online career support. It is well worth a read if you have an interest in the area.

Love on the Dole

Love_on_the_dole

I’ve just finished reading Love on the Dole. It is a novel which describes the experiences of a family living in a community in which work is extremely scarce. The novel deals with their trials and tribulations in trying to find and keep work and also in trying to navigate the benefit system. The novel also shows how this challenging environment impacts on their relationships with lovers, friends and family. Oh, yes and the novel was originally published in the early 1930s, but if you are anything like me you’ll be able to spot some connections with our 2010s reality.

The novel follows the stories of Harry and Sally a brother and sister from Salford from the point at which they leave school (c.14) to their mid-twenties. Love on the Dole is probably largely remembered as a “social document” through which we can experience the otherness of the 1930s. However, this is unfair as the novel works as a story above all else. While some of its value undoubtedly resides in the way in which it realises the environment of 1920s & 1930s Salford, it also engages you as a story. You will want to know what happens to Sally and Harry and you’ll be cheering them on, despite an awareness that even if they transcend their situations their fellows will not. It is this ability to focus on the humanity in the underclass that is Love on the Dole’s real achievement. Sally and Harry are not a “social problem” rather they are people who are doing the best they can with a difficult situation.

The experience that Greenwood paints is one of constant deprivation. People can’t find a job, if they do, they can’t get enough money. Life is defined by a lack of the basic necessities: no food; no clothes; no furniture; no home. Pleasures, such as they are, result from booze and fags and the occasional winning gamble. It seems to me, and others are welcome to correct me, that the appearance and possibly the experience of poverty has changed from the 1930s. The existence of some kind of welfare state (however, beleaguered) obviously has something to do with that. But, so does the ready availability of cheap commodities. For Harry a new suit is a near impossible dream, even with access to credit. For the Primark generation it is possible to look like a decent approximation of the rich on very small amounts of money. So we don’t see people shambling round the streets dressed in patched up rags any more. Similarly the availability of “basics” ranges in most supermarkets puts food in most people’s bellies most of the time.

Of course it is more complex than this and my argument is not that there isn’t still absolute poverty playing out in the streets of (broken) Britain. The existence of food deserts, poor public transport, high petrol prices and arbitrary benefit traps ensures that it is possible to find the modern equivalents of Harry and Sally. However, at the moment we are probably still aware of a strong distinction between the underclass and the working class (even if they call themselves middle class these days). The story of Love on the Dole is essentially one about the membrane between the working class and the underclass, and what it shows is that it is very easy to slip from working into absolute poverty, but very difficult to slip back again. The current policy rhetoric about the underclass largely ignores this and prefers to treat the underclass as a dangerous other, with little or no connection to the rest of society.

The appearance of poverty in Love on the Dole is different, but what is very similar is the feeling of precariousness. Harry and Sally are aware that what little they have is built on very shaky foundations. You don’t need to have holes in your clothes to feel that. How many pay checks could most of us survive without? Credit cards and mortgages ramp up the precariousness of our lives and mean that while we may be able to project the semblance of wealth, we are in fact on the cusp of poverty. To pull a phrase out of history we have no stake in the means of production, we are merely wage slaves whose subsistence depends on our ability to sell our labour. This abilty to earn money by selling our labour depends partially on our employability skills (what we can do) partially on our career management skills (how effectively we can manage our interaction with the labour market) but a hell of a lot on the situation in which we find ourselves.

Love on the Dole is impressive because it demonstrates the centrality of context to the pursuit of the good life. In the novel Sally is able to use her skills to position her family favourably within the context. But, the real hero of the novel is Larry who seeks, but fails, to renegotiate the context itself.

There is much food for thought here – especially given the number of times that commentators compare the current economy to the 1930s. Well worth a read..