Picture this: work

The beauty of contrast is that looking at one thing makes you focus on another. That is true in art but also for work and non-work. Which is why looking at pictures of motherhood can make us appreciate how important our images of work are: work does not work until we know what work looks like.

In late 2013, two contrasting photo series of women as mothers made the news in the UK. The first series was of Licia Ronzuli, Italian member of the European Parliament, and her daughter Vittoria. Pictures taken in parliament showed mother and daughter over three years, Victoria on her mother’s lap, playing with whatever tools of the trade were within the reach of her growing arms (pens, paper, headphones) and learning to raise her arm(s) to vote. In an earlier interview, Ronzuli said she brought her daughter to the workplace as a political act, to make women’s struggle between careering and caring more visible. The second series was the polar opposite: a collection of baby photographs from Britain’s Victorian days. Back then photography required several minutes of exposure, so mothers camouflaged themselves as chairs and curtains to hold their little darlings still for long enough. The babies’ expressions range from sceptical to petrified while their mothers morph into shapeless background figures.

At first glance these two series provide a good illustration of how parenting work has emerged from the shadows of the domestic sphere and become visible in the professional one. Across the developed economies parenting is no longer women’s hidden job but a role that both men and women seek to actively reconcile with their professional lives. Governments, employers and unions increasingly recognise the importance of worker’s work-life balance – for the individuals’ and their own good.

At second glance contrasting parenting then and now draws attention to our picture of work then and now. Parenting and its associated domestic labour tasks have retained their distinct images and their air of tangibility and concreteness. Changing an infant, cooking family dinner or presiding over homework still looks essentially the same now as it did in Victorian days. Of course, as Rahima Baldwin Dancy observes in her writings on modern family life, children today hardly witness any physical domestic work labour anymore as parents push (dishwasher/washing machine/microwave) buttons rather than wield brooms, brushes and breadknives. But pushing those buttons is still unmistakably recognisable as housework.

By contrast, much paid work today shows far fewer hallmarks of a hard days’ work than what we see in photographs of 19th century factories or even 20th century offices. The lady with the laptop and latte in the coffee shop – plotting a client’s social media strategy or chatting on Facebook? The gentleman on his cell next to the swings – organising childcare or closing a property deal? The attendees of a book launch – art connoisseurs or editors looking for the next big writer? As work and life practices amalgamate, often fuelled by the latest information and communication technology, our picture of what work looks like has become much more diffuse and ambiguous.

But does it matter if work doesn’t look like work anymore? Does it matter if our hands are not covered in factory dirt or eraser fluid at the end of our working day? Isn’t it good if work looks and feels like pleasure?

In work-life amalgamation feelings of effort and strain are replaced by experiences of flow and of making a meaningful contribution to society. When work and life amalgamate, workers prioritise the experience itself, enjoying the opportunity to be driven by their intrinsic motivation. Mundane extrinsic aspects such as pay fade into the background. What’s not to like? Unfortunately, as accounts of professional workers such as those collected by burnout expert Dina Glouberman aptly illustrate, the motivational milk that feeds work-life amalgamation has a tendency to turn sour, and irreversibly so. Suddenly the flow does not quite lead to the desired output and the contributions are not appreciated anymore. Changes in extrinsic rewards – cuts in project resources, denied promotion, loss of audiences and critics – are typical catalysts. Workers fall out of love with their work and intrinsic motivation either slowly dries up or evaporates in the flames of a full-blown burn-out.

It is at this point that our picture of work becomes important. When work and life are indistinguishable, we, quite literally, lose sight of what we trade in the wage-effort bargain. We don’t have a clear picture anymore of what we are and aren’t paid to do, and that picture is crucial for our sense of sense of accomplishment as well as for our bargaining power with those who pay our wages. Invisibility means powerlessness. The Victorian women who hid in the curtains of the photoset could have testified to that. Their domestic achievements were invisible in public, their public opportunities constrained by the absence of rights to votes and careers. Making domestic work more visible has been and remains important, as Ronzuli rightly asserts. By the same logic we have to make paid work visible (again). We need to be clear in our minds what work looks like, and how we are and are not prepared to undertake it. More often than not, blurred work-life boundaries and the amalgamation of work and life fail to provide a sustainable solution for us as individuals. We need a clear picture of work to make work work.

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