The changing meaning of work – from work-life balance to unemployment

Sunday 1 November, 10.45am until 12.15pm, Courtyard Gallery

For years, it has been argued that employees need to adjust their ‘work-life balance’ in favour of leisure and family life. Policy has been preoccupied with ‘workaholics’, work-related stress, ‘presenteeism’ and employers’ responsibility to ensure employees did not neglect their parenting duties or personal lives. Patricia Hewitt, when Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, called over-working a British disease. Today’s economic climate has thrown this question into relief, however. The prospect of the enforced leisure of unemployment or compulsory four day weeks might take the gloss off ‘work-life balance’. As India Knight wrote in The Sunday Times, we don’t know what work is until we lose it. Others look for a silver lining to the recession: Patrick Collinson, editor of Guardian Money, suggests we ‘imagine what an extra 52 days off each year would do to your work-life balance’. After all ‘what’s the point of economic growth if we can’t have more leisure?’ Perhaps we should see the crisis as an opportunity to restructure our lives, to downshift and realise there’s more to life than work. 

In his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton argues work gives us a sense of identity, allows us to make friends outside of our private life and – lo and behold – can even be ‘full of flirtation and erotic drama’! The meaning we attach to work changes over time, however. The Protestant work ethic and portfolio career-building are both telling of their particular times. When modern women demanded equal rights and full-time jobs, they recognised work as an escape from the private world of domestic drudgery. Today, demands for flexible working hours have been championed as a feminist solution for working mums against the ‘macho’ environment of work, work, work. Is it time to reassess the meaning of work? Should we challenge today’s view of work as problematic, even toxic, and make the case for the real importance of work? Are individuals more creative in their private lives or in the sphere of work? How is the recession changing our relationship with work?

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Professor Julia Hobsbawm
honorary visiting professor, Cass Business School; founder, Editorial Intelligence

Stephen Overell
associate director, The Work Foundation; project leader, The Good Work Commission; journalist and author, Inwardness: the rise of meaningful work

Michael Owens
commercial director, Bow Arts Trust; owner, London Urban Visits; formerly, head of development policy, London Development Agency

Dr John Philpott
public policy director and chief economist, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development; economist and labour market analyst

Para Mullan
senior project manager, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development; FCIPD

Produced by
Para Mullan senior project manager, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development; FCIPD
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