Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Thursday, May 08, 2008

You call that work?

You have to wait for the right moment. That's an adage that applies to so many things. Tell me as I watch my trades flip flop. As far as ideas go, they flow freely through my head but they need the right moments to see air. Yesterday, I got one of those moments when a good friend treated me to a lunch of curried tripe; that before she was due to go on a trip. When the belly is full the mind can work. If Confucius did not say that then he should have.

My friend told of an "encounter" with some other parents at school, who were lauding the school. As she told it, one mother said "It has a great PTA, with lots of women who have time to do things because they don't go out to work." Clang! That was the bell for my moment. She continued that the woman realized that she was digging a huge hole but tried to stay above water--sorry for the mixed metaphors.My friend's back stiffened at that moment, just as it did at that PTA moment. "You see how some people see us? I felt ready to biff her. Pushing up on me in her sleek suit, with me still in my gym clothes. Like I am some kind of layabout...." Harumph...

I had been listening to a radio call-in program on my way to lunch. The discussion was about the productivity of public sector utility workers, and so much of the commentary was about what people see. Water workers down a hole, or telephone workers up a pole, but the drivers lounging in the truck, other workers standing on the side--seems that they could be doing something. Sanitation workers removing garbage--or sometimes just redistributing it along the street, driver moving the vehicle along--seems that the driver is doing all he can. And so on. Why can't these workers have more flexible arrangements and work 24/7? And so on. Work is not what is done. It's what we see being done. That's why thinkers or so-called intellectual workers had such a hard time getting respect. You're thinking. That's not work.

I have recently thought long and hard about the nature of work, and started a blog post that ran for some 10 pages. Well, that is too long in my mind, so I have dribbled out some of the notions as I have written other posts.

I could ask "Why do people who go out to work think that they are the only ones working?" When I posed this question to myself several months ago, I did it from the somewhat odd perspective of a stay-home dad, who spent a good chunk of his day working to make money--and I can see how much I make or lose each moment. If I make no money, my bills don't get paid. If they don't get paid, then...Well, you know the drill. When I visit "the workplace" of my spouse I see what people do, and what they don't do: unless someone does something really extraordinary they salary rolls in each month, whether one really works or not.They all think that they are working. People rarely walk into an office and say "What have you done today?" It's obvious. They have been working. But people often roll into the homestead and ask "What have you done today?". Hmm. Well, I have been working--just at home.

Simply put, there is a tendency to see the home as a "non-work place". Part of that is a natural tendency, or logical fallacy, to see the home as a place for leisure. If you leave to go to work then when you come back you are not at work anymore, so you are on leisure time--rum and coke, TV, relaxation, yaddah-yaddah. Therefore, people who are at home must be on leisure time--permanent rum and coke, TV, relaxation, yaddah-yaddah. Mind you, the housekeeper is clearly working--washing, ironing, cooking, etc. The at-home parent, for instance, is not working unless he/she can show some "professional" activity is being performed--therapists, writers, political pundits, may get some slack here. We economists are largely to blame for this state of affairs: because we tend to value only paid employment or income-producing activities. We see the housekeeper, for example, as contributing to national income but the stay-at-home parent (doing other "domestic" things for no pay) contributes zero.

Traditionally, the faux-pas about who is working had a gender bias. Men tended to go out to work; women tended to stay at home. Now that has changed and a lot of women go out to work. So, the "PTA" type comment burns if you are a stay-home mother, running your butt ragged with errands involving children's academic and social schedules, yet being seen as someone who has "time on their hands". Even in little Bim that time is well used; while the distances are less, the traffic is horribly dense. Think about a typical day for the at-home good-for-nothing.

Drop off at school (8.30am). Back to house to deal with carpenter, gardener, plumber, delivery man, etc (9). Gym (10--yes, that's leisure-ish). Hardware store to pick up door locks, or supermarket to pick up food, or... (11), and having now to negotiate the Wildey Triangle twice--soon to be like that in Bermuda, from where one may never re-emerge? Lunch (1pm...or really 1.45 because traffic was beastly). Back to school for pick up (2.15). Drama at school for number 2 child (3.15). Music lesson on west coast for number 1 child (4.15). [Need help here, because you cant do those two trips...enlist another loafing stay-home parent. Problem resolved.] Pick up number 2 child from drama (4.30). [Need help here, because you are now stuck up the west coast...enlist another or same loafing stay-home parent. Problem resolved.] Pick up number 2 child from friend's home (6pm). Home (6.30...Wildey-Bermuda Triangle permitting). Spouse returns from office (6.30). "Honey, I'm home. What a day I had at the office. I spent the whole day in meetings, from 9am until 4pm; had to eat the lunch you sent me at my desk. Then was on a conference call with an advisor in Timbuktu, discussing nothing important. What a waste! What did you do today?" Spouse gets sent into orbit with no scheduled re-entry date (6.40...lands in pool so needs no bath before packing his bags for night at hotel).

Put that way, some of the distinctions are really ridiculous. Office worker salary? Let's call it US$ 5,000 a month. At-home "worker" salary? Let's round it. Zero point zero.

My friend? No need to say what her substantial professional qualifictions are. But she's been there and done that in the world of corporate ladder scaling. She tells me her back is broad--and her skin is not thin--so she did not launch the PTA commentator into orbit. Well, not that time. But I suspect that Barbados may soon have a space program--located in the parking lot of one of its schools--if you get my drift.

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