passaggiato continuo: work life balance

I was talking with our Head of Elearning at Brookes about why I find Twitter a-good-thing. He worked for many years in Italy. I described Twitter as the passaggiato of the Internet. I have also heard it described as the virtual office corridor or the space around the water cooler. But, this led me to a wider reflection about public and private spheres, the work-life balance and third spaces.

The work-life balance discourse takes the work space and sets it apart from all the others that might operate in a person’s life. This move, however, privileges work and might be seen as a oppressively structuring move, which in third space theory, anyway, gives work an equal weight to at least two other spaces: the domestic and the individual/transgressive third space.

I have always wanted a unified life before retirement. Yes, I need to earn money but personal finance is not a hobby interest. Work for wages is an important part of my identity as is my current academic practice. I want to be employable. I like working. One of the best jobs I had was my first one: washing up in a restaurant. It was hot, hard, filthy and antisocial, but it gave me independence, camaraderie, and led me into a 10 year career (1973-1983) in professional kitchens.

In professional kitchens one day off was the norm. Eighty-hour weeks were not unusual. There was very little time for “work-life balance” and a lot of immediate stress. Consequently antidotes to stress crept into the workplace. Work became a constant party. And, the party became very hard work. Excess took its toll. I quit striving to be a chef, worked as a rounds-man (chef de partie), stopped drinking, started running and sat in on continuing ed courses with a view to a career change. In one sense the rest is history.

But, parts of that old life still cling to me. I do not especially recognise Saturday and Sunday as days of rest. They were my hardest work days. I don’t really have “work mates” and “real friends”. My friends are my friends. I work with some of them. As a result of some decisions, some hard work, and some good fortune I now have a job in which I have a lot of autonomy to schedule when I do things. But, I recognise that in this there is the seed of a problem. The point, as I see it, of the work-life balance discourse and its regulatory framework is to provide a means of combatting exploitative employment practices. But, I do not think the work-life balance concept does it.

Institutions of education, government, employment, the family: the structures of our culture provide a few quite strict modes within which we operate our lives. The school year, the school day, the work day, the weekend and the long summer holiday evolved from agricultural and then early industrial patterns of occupation. Within this wider frame we might construct a few discrete spaces within which our patterns of occupation can be clustered. In the past ten or fifteen years the idea of three “spaces” has taken some hold as a result of Homi Bhabha’s (2004) coining: “third space”.

Although Bhabha is never so prescriptive as to pin them down, the concept operates on several levels. In his post colonial critique we can identify the space of the oppressor, the space of the oppressed and the space where they are both free. The more usual construction of the term is around 1) the domestic sphere: the family and the home and 2) the sphere of civic engagement: school, work and other forms of public participation. Set against these is 3) the third space where individual and sometimes transgressive acts are played out: where people let their “real” selves show. Often bars and nightclubs are labeled third spaces. Dissent operates in a third space. A Foucaultian analysis might identify the third space as that place in a prison where the CCTV cameras cannot see. There is a parallel with the Freudian tripartite psyche of ego (domestic), super ego (civic) and id (third space). These three spaces are useful in constructing analyses of identities. Again, to over simplify, we are one person at home, one person at work and one person down the pub with our mates.

Latterly and conventionally the term third space has been appropriated into late capitalist branded corporatism where the domestic space and the work/school/civic-engagement spaces are set against the retail space: shopping malls as third spaces:

It would be, as we say now, a “third place,” a congenial gathering spot separate from home and work. (http://www.dynamist.com/articles-speeches/opeds/malls.html and see also e.g. http://www.psfk.com/2008/08/living-in-the-mall.html)

Bill Thompson critiques this development with respect to the Internet (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/6496351.stm)

An adverse consequence of this is that people are encouraged to develop and reinforce multiple identities: this is me at work and this is the “real me”. But, with the work space dominant in many discourses we find our “real” selves in a subordinate position to our work selves. … [tbc]

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