Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Privilege of Having Choice

Over at Scatterplot, Olderwoman has a followup to her post on Priorities. This really is only a taste:

Third, there really is choice how to balance work and home issues, and I think we need to value our own choices and be less resentful of others. As a personality, I am about as competitive as it is possible to be, and tend naturally to a negative outlook, so I understand such feelings very well. But, really, if someone is choosing to be a workaholic and gets more done, why shouldn’t s/headvance further in the field? Why should I be complaining about it? I have the benefit of a richer life built around relationships. Why should I expect to have all those relationships plus the rewards of workaholism? Plus, there are a lot of people who have been unhappy in relationships or who cannot have children who shift to work because of their losses in other areas. On the other end of the spectrum, stay-at-home mothers are making choices, too, to give up on their own ambitions or desires for fulfilling intellectual work. Why should I complain because their lives are less stressful? Especially when I know theyhave their own stresses. (This is the point BlueMonster also made.)

Please note that saying that we need to get a grip and remember our own priorities and values and blessings is different from questioning the structures that make these choices so hard. Professional occupations often have some variant of the “up or out” decision that makes the early career of academics so stressful. It seems worth trying to rework the “rules of the game” and the structure of early careers to create more paths to success. And we would all benefit from doing our part to shift the cultural ethos away from competition and materialism and toward a more humane set of social policies. But we cannot reasonably expect to work less and get the same rewards as the people who work more. And a brutal fact about any intellectual field is that jealousy is an occupational disease and some people get more acclaim than others for reasons that are only sometimes related to the quality of the work.

Let me also name the materialist component of choice. We have more choices if we are willing to spend below our means and save, and we have more choices if we maintain a standard of living that does not cost so much. The median family income in this country is about $45,000 a year, and a lot of people are raising families on less than $30,000 a year. It is quite possible to live and raise a family on much less money than academics or other professionals earn. Policies and work structures that make it more possible to lighten workloads in exchange for being paid less can create more choices for people in the high-paid professions. Of course, this does nothing to help the stresses on low income people, and we should not forget that.

Which takes us back to privilege. The lives of the affluent are built on the backs of the lower wage work of others. Wage structures have become more unequal, and a broad ethos of competitive individualism has dulled the sense of compassion and interconnection among different groups of people. When we privileged folks locate our own tensions and struggles in the broader context of human interconnection and struggle, it is a lot easier to get a sense of perspective about the choices we have to make, even the difficult ones. And easier to remember to support the political struggles of others.

My work on the FMLA tells me that "choice" is often illusory w/r/t female workers, as they are so often in the position of being a primary caregiver. It is as illusory as the "lack of interest" defense in EEOC v. Sears. And while the above argues that choices are real, they are made within constraints, and often the product of privilege. If you have choice, good for you. If you don't have much of it, welcome to the real world.