Harry Brighouse recently attended a conference that explored solutions to the demands on families from the workplace and the gendered division of labor at home. One presenter "argues for a mix of improved daycare provision, labour market regulation and parental leave at generous replacement rates; and the argument is that this will improve the quality of family life and increase gender equality".
Harry was disappointed with the discussion, because he found that a sizable group of people felt that changes in the workplace would lead to greater inequalities in the workplace. Women would get sidelined into "mommy track" jobs. They also felt that men would be highly unlikely to step up to the plate and do their share at home. Most felt that responsibilities at home fall under the category of "shit work," rather than fulfilling work.
Harry and I are clearly in the other group. We believe that given the opportunity, more men would take the opportunity to jump into family life. If an equal number of men as women took advantage of workplace flexibility, then gender inequality wouldn't be a problem in the workplace. More likely, there would be a greater chasm between childless and family workers, however. Workers with kids would be shuffled to less fulfilling and poorer paying positions. That doesn't really bother me.
Do people find greater fulfillment in their work or with their kids? That question came up last year, when Linda Hirshman wrote that people find greater fulfillment at work. We pointed out the elitist notion to that claim. Clearly, people with higher level jobs have greater fulfillment from work. It is also dangerous to make assumptions about the preferences of all people; everybody's different.
It's interesting how one's view of human nature can have such a large impact on public policy.
I find fulfillment in both work and kids. (I'm lucky that I have a cool job and that we can afford for me to do this job. There is often a trade off between cool jobs and good salaries.) I was willing to trade off a little time with the kids in order to work, however I am not willing to cut into that time too much. How many people fall into the camp of liking both equally? I'm not sure.
Like Harry, I think that parental involvement with the family is important; it's good for child and parent alike. It's important enough to use government incentives to gently guide work-centered parents to commit more time at home. I also believe that employment is a good thing. It protects individuals from risks -- divorce, death, disability. It's important enough to employ government incentives to gently guide family-centered parents to have some minor employment.
Whatever work-family policies are cooked up in the next few years have to take into account differing fulfillment measures and needed outcomes.