Are We Really Choosing to Go Back to Work?

There have been a number of reports recently showing an unexpectedly sharp decline in birth rate in the US and in China which if it continues will lead to nations with very large aging populations and all the social and economic issues that brings. In response to these reports, the general consensus in press articles and on social media, has been that the economics of having a baby is too unappealing for many people. Without progressive policies allowing women to return to work and for fathers to be able to take parental leave, we can’t be surprised that the birth rate is declining. However, this misses the important fact that some of the countries with the best parental leave and most highly subsidised childcare have some of the lowest birth rates in the world. 

According to a super interesting report by the Institute for Family Studies the decline in fertility witnessed in many countries, not just the US and China, is caused by a wider culture of ‘workism’, by which they mean a cultural emphasis on work as a highly valued and meaningful activity. To be clear I understand that we work in order to meet our rent/mortgage payments and feed ourselves and our kids, obviously there are millions of people in the UK who are struggling to meet their basic needs and work is not optional, the growth in food banks alone makes that clear. But there are also millions of parents who have gone way past meeting these needs and still feel the need to work and work hard. 

To make it more complicated, despite this desire to work many women also reported wanting to have more children than they have. (By the way I’m talking mostly about women here because it’s notoriously hard to get decent data on men and birth rate as they’re not always honest about or even know how many children they’ve had.) So, if women would actually like to have more children but don’t even when they’re given financial incentives to do so, what’s going on?

The research for this post has been a particularly difficult topic to unpick because it’s so entrenched in my own thinking and the society in which I’m immersed. I imagine many of you will also be reading this and thinking, what’s the story here? Why are you even talking about this? Yes, we would rather work than spend all day with our kids, what’s the issue exactly? The issue for me is exemplified in a lecture on the social theorist Max Weber I recently watched, in which the professor turns to the packed student hall at Yale and says ‘most of you in this room will never have much fun!’.  Max Weber used to be taught to all undergraduate anthropologists, I’m not sure how popular he is these days but I still think his work is amazing because he does so much to help us understand our own unquestioned, unseen beliefs and values. In the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism he lays out how the development of capitalism is intrinsically linked to the emergence of Protestantism.  Working hard, saving money and not having fun are basically the core of Protestant ethics and this has been hugely influential to our own thinking about what a valuable way of living our lives is. Why do we choose to work more when we could be out taking a walk, visiting a relative or reading a book and then going to collect our kids from school? Because this feels like madness to many of us. We don’t deserve fun; we need to be productive. 

All the policies implemented to supposedly help women and families are about returning to work, they reinforce the idea that work is the priority and this ends up paradoxically discouraging women from having more children. As the Institute for Family Studies report states:

“Government policies that try to increase fertility by providing more benefits aimed at workers, such as universal child care or parental leave programs, may undermine their efforts as they strengthen a “workist” life-script rather than a “familist” one.” 

I’ve always felt a bit ill at ease by the statements I’ve heard from politicians over the years like ‘hard working families’, ‘jobs jobs jobs’, ‘supporting women to get back to work’. Not because I don’t recognize the struggle people have just to stay afloat and the right for women to return to work after having children but because I’ve wondered why we assume that working really hard is a good thing. Wouldn’t it be good if we could stay afloat by working just enough?

And then this got me to asking, what is work? Work is often defined as economic activity but anthropologists have long highlighted how ‘the economy’ doesn’t really exist. It’s just people doing things and it’s very much embedded in our emotional, political and religious lives, not a separate sphere where people make choices based on rational mathematical calculations. The work we choose, the way we spend our money etc is not independent of the social contexts in which we exist, there is no ‘rational maximiser’. In this pandemic, late capitalist world it has become ever clearer that in order to work someone needs to take care of our children, we pay them to have that job. But then if we do it is it a job? We’ll hear things like ‘parenting is the hardest job in the world’, or feminists will highlight the invisible labour undertaken by mothers but it doesn’t make it a job – because it’s not valued either financially or socially anywhere near as much as paid work is and legally it doesn’t count as employment either.  

So if a nanny takes your kid to the playground after school it’s considered work but if you do it it’s what, leisure? A lifestyle choice? If you go to work at a call centre every day that’s work but if you spend all day on the allotment that’s leisure? If I sit at a computer reading about Weber it feels more like work than going for a walk does but is it? This, is why I love anthropology, because it helps me to think about the world I live in and to question whether the way things are, are they way they have to be. Maybe work can be more than just a job. This quote by David Graeber puts it so well:

“I was drawn to the discipline because it opens windows on other possible forms of human social existence; because it served as a conscious reminder that most of what we assume to be immutable has been, in other times and places, arranged quite differently, and therefore, that human possibilities are in almost every way greater than we ordinarily imagine.”
From Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire (2007)

There are women (and a few rare men) who choose to work very little or not at all but they pay a big price, not just financially but socially. Stay at home mums report higher levels of anger, sadness and social isolation. I wonder if that would be different if we didn’t see work as the source of our sense of meaning and social value. It’s hard sometimes to see the cultural wood for the social norms trees but for me, after a year of looking for work during a pandemic and feeling a bit unmoored, I’ve been thinking more and more about why we work and what work is. Is my life valuable even if I’m not working? I hope so.

Further Reading

The Institute for Family Studies is called More Work Fewer Babies: What Does Workism Have to do with Falling Fertility by Laurie de Rose and Lyman Stone

Weber and Anthropology
Author(s): Charles F. Keyes
Source: Annual Review of Anthropology , 2002

Washington Post article about US birth rate decline

This lecture on Weber by Iván Szelényi  is pretty great, especially from around 35 minutes in. It’s where I got the ‘most of you in this room will never have much fun’. 

4 thoughts on “Are We Really Choosing to Go Back to Work?

  1. Interesting article Gemma. But I think the glorification of the Protestant work ethic/cult of personal responsibility has been used intentionally by business leaders and politicians as a tool to corral people and disparage collective action (ie, bankruptcy as a strategy in business is unremarkable, many executives are shielded from the economic fallout, but personal bankruptcy, having your house foreclosed is a personal failure. Socialism for the rich, capitalism for everyone else, etc). Related to that, I think the trend in worker compensation (link below), has a lot to do with contemporary work culture. Wages haven’t kept pace with inflation in our lifetimes, or have become wildly out of whack like with the divergence between investment banker salaries compared to other professionals like doctors over that time, so two income households are typically a necessity for families rather than a choice. I think the fact that either one parent has to work part time or have some of the domestic work outsourced to keep households with young children ticking over, typically to women, typically working for relatively low wages, is another example of just how little the caring work is valued, in spite of being a massive economic driver. Probably having a tax structure that valued caring work properly (maybe tax and pension credits for parents and people in unpaid caring roles rather than focusing on subsidized childcare, which doesn’t benefit parents who would rather not use it) and closing gaping tax loopholes for corporations and the very rich to help fund it would be a good start. The other related point is that people are living longer and so often have decades on either side of their child rearing years. Economic insecurity around retirement is pervasive, especially with fewer private pension plans and more people in insecure/ freelance work. At least we’re at a stage where people are talking about life-related burnout, and the conversation includes how we got here. Maybe universal basic income will happen and people may feel they can take their foot off the gas a bit without having the wheels fall off?


    1. Thanks so much for this Elaine, I think the politics of all this is super relevant and you make some excellent points. The info in that link you’ve sent is one I’ve seen before and really blew my mind, everyone should read it. You’re absolutely right to emphasise the economic inequalities and how so many people are forced to work


  2. Great article. I was giving a talk to creative freelancers at the height of the last lockdown. In it, I was arguing for work-life balance to be considered a public health issues and a human right. During this time parents working from home were really struggling to juggle homeschooling and other non-work caring responsibilities. Then I got the common comment I get at these talks from a young marketing executive who said “I really don’t see the value of the term work-life balance. To me it’s all just life and I value all of it.”. I asked her – “how do you juggle your caring responsibilities?”. Her reply “I don’t have any.”.


    1. Thank you! And that’s an amazing anecdote, an not only does she have no caring responsibilities but that attitude really only applies to those in jobs they like and feel they belong in. I read an interview with Geoff Dyer recently in which he said he aimed to go on the dole when he left university as did many of his cohort. He wanted to write and do other things, so that’s what he did. I can’t imagine university leavers being able to think that way now but even those who could afford to don’t. The idea of avoiding getting a job has lost all respectability which I think people in the 80’s and perhaps before definitely supported.


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