“I can’t believe it.” The floor started to slip away. Or perhaps it was just me, reaching out for the flat, cold lino-coated walls of the hallway as I heard the voice of the human resources manager at a prominent Melbourne gallery, telling me, not that I hadn’t got the job, but that my application had simply never arrived.
I had done everything right. I spent a few days on the application. I tailored my experience and chose my sentence structures to compel the reader into the firm belief - which I personally held - that I was their ideal gallery attendant and, what’s more, that the job was perfect for me. I could remember how, in a daze, I had found out about the job at all.
I was at work, permitting myself a dangerous, five-minute collision of worlds. I was sitting at my desk, with its teal coloured pinboard walls and piles of project contracts squaring me in, daydreaming, when I saw an ad for part-time gallery attendants on a website of an exhibition. In a secret corner where my dreams give off slight heat, being held, as they are, so close to my skin, I knew it was meant to be. (Although that heat might also be have been the hot water bottle I’ve taken to since I moved into my draughty apartment in Melbourne after making the big work-life change from professional public servant to wannabe video artist.)
Having done everything right, however, was not enough to overcome the dangers of entrusting my job application to e-mail. But it wasn’t so much the way in which technology had thwarted my chances at my ideal work-life balance that was causing me so much lino-slipping dizziness. It was that in the three seconds it took to read a job advertisement heading and picture myself in the life I always knew was meant to be, I had convinced myself this was possible. It was the loss of the dream of part-time work-life balance, the loss of the ideal.
In search of a positive in the entire experience (the lesson, “don’t rely on e-mail”, not being remotely adequate to give meaning to such devastation), I started thinking about what the real crux of my grief was. The news was not so personally shattering as finding out something terrible had happened to a member of my family. Nor was it as heinous as the 2006 Budget announcements to “help” the disabled and “boost” the economy with tax cuts for the wealthy. Yet, it had completely gutted me. Why?
The work-life balance is more than just a pragmatic approach to hours in the day: that’s why. I wanted that job because I thought it was the ideal part-time complement to my full-time studies. I had quit my public service job where I felt safe, smart, and well regarded - and hopelessly, terribly dead - and moved to Melbourne to study video art, where, tentatively, quietly, once every few months, I could call myself - just to myself - an artist. I could potentially keep supporting myself as a part-time public servant, as I had been doing for the last couple of months, and earn more than in the dream gallery job. Technically, this would satisfy the hours-in-the-day understanding of work-life balance. And I would have enough money and enough time to do the “life” stuff - the art.
But it still would not have been "enough."
A central problem in achieving a good work-life balance is that it is very hard to find part-time work that is fulfilling and rewarding in the same way that full-time work is. Bertrand Russell noted the centrality of meaningful work to happiness in his book The Conquest of Happiness, and philosophers and social scientists before and after him have all reached the same conclusion: meaningful work is a critical ingredient of feeling satisfied with life. The idea of the work-life balance is more than just getting the pieces of the puzzle to fit together. It’s what you tell yourself about the way it is meant to be. It is about the idea of yourself that makes you happy.
How then to find work which balances with life in more ways than simply providing enough money and time to live? I wanted that gallery job so badly because it would have done more than provided enough money and time to support my other pursuits. It would also have made me feel good about myself, the way that full-time work has, for hundreds of years, been recognised as central to making people feel good about themselves.
This is where the current public policies around work-life balance seem to miss the mark. In Australian policy-making there is a rather crude understanding of the work-life balance as simply providing enough childcare places and enough flexibility in work hours to allow parents to pick up school-age children and take them to football practice, or to care for an elderly relative at home. Work-life balance is achieved through family policy, employment policy, and aged-care policy. It’s not about helping people to achieve a sense of identity, or to ensure they are able to pursue creative endeavours alongside their jobs. It's not about encouraging people to take up yoga or visit their friends more. And it’s not about helping people make sure their jobs are making them happy.
I am inclined, these days, to try to operate as much as possible as if Australian politicians did not exist. Their policies rarely help me. I figure it is up to me, in the true, individualistic spirit of the times, to forget about politicians and to make sure that in my own life, I interpret work-life balance more broadly than my politicians do.
Some of us are lucky enough to have part-time work at all, as a first step towards a fulfilling work-life balance. (Despite my whingeing about how unfulfilled my part-time work makes me, I recognise how singularly blessed I am, in spite of my government’s narrow interpretation of work-life balance, to have flexible work hours - especially for reasons totally unrelated to having children or aged relatives.) The next step in making this work-life balance “work” is making sure that part-time work is still rewarding; still contributes to our sense of self - rather than detracts from it - and still fulfils its role as one of the key ingredients of happiness.
I didn’t get the dream gallery job. But it doesn't mean it's time to go back to working at a desk with teal coloured pinboard walls and piles of project contracts squaring me in either.