By Sam Tomlin
This morning saw Conservative MP Louise Mensch publicly declare her resignation from her position as MP of Corby and East Northamptonshire. In a welcome change, no MP-scandal was behind this decision but simply the pressure of balancing the demands of a public life and prioritising her young family. She said she was “devastated by the necessary decision” amid reports that Conservatives in the constituency are worried about potential defeat in the by-election.
I, for one, have the utmost respect and admiration for Ms Mensch for making this decision, not primarily as an act of sacrifice for her party (and the possibility of the Conservatives losing a seat!), but for the message it sends to our ‘output’ and ‘productivity’ obsessed society. In a West driven by rampant materialism and unquestioning economic output, personal career progression and advancement can frequently trump dedication to family and community and Ms Mensch is certainly to be commended for taking this self-sacrificial decision.
There are of course questions around the decision for her husband to be based in the USA and the decision for the woman (again) to quit work ahead of the husband to care for children. However, we do not know the details of the family situation and consequently judgement must be suspended on this front.
At a personal level, this story has hit home since I took the decision almost a year ago to the day to leave a job requiring 9-6pm working hours, and 5 days a week in an office. I’m not pretending to be a martyr and I’m aware many others work far longer hours than myself, but in taking self-employment and part-time roles in central London and in my local community, my life has been enriched. Being able to spend 3-4 days in London doing ‘policy’ related work complemented by 1-2 days each week in my local community has, I believe, given me a much broader perspective on life and what is important. The relationships I have built in those 1-2 days a week and the time I’ve been able to spend simply getting to know my neighbours) have become invaluable for me and I can honestly say I have learnt more this last year doing this than my years of ‘elite’ education and ‘professional’ career-building.
As I wrote a few months ago, I’m not suggesting abandonment of a culture of hard work or a work-life beyond our immediate family or community (a return to an agrarian existence hardly seems appropriate!), but perhaps a re-evaluation of what is most important in life. If we were on a plane about to crash and got to speak to one last person – would it be our bank manager or boss at work, or the people we love to say how much we love them? I am confident of the answer most people would give, and consequently I question western society’s projected values with regard to work. How much time do we spend at each? Are we working to live or living to work?
This could be combated by governments or the work-place (already good examples of this). A four day working week may decrease economic output, but would it increase overall happiness? The most recent OECD figures seem to suggest more leisure time is associated with greater happiness, Denmark being the happiest with 16.06 hours per day (OECD average: 14.76). I’m aware of the controversy of such a statement, but perhaps these are the kinds of questions we should be discussing in the public sphere. The research of the New Economic Foundation proposing a 21 hour working week is also of interest here, as they suggest this would help us flourish through closing the inequality gap and reducing our impact on the environment among other things. It may not need a day a week less of work though as the part-time working model could extend with people taking two jobs, one of which allows you to work in the local community. The government could certainly incentivise or make easier the possibility of such working conditions.
Of course, the most effective way to do this will be through being the change we want to see in the world, as Gandhi so eloquently put it. This is certainly a message for the professional class and those on higher incomes; it is clear that with many people struggling to pay rent and even buy food asking them to work less would seem naive and insensitive. But through the professional classes working less, more time could be given to local communities (on a voluntary or paid basis if funding can be found), and being the much needed but currently impossible Big Society helping to alleviate some of the difficulties for those particularly feeling the bite of the recession.
Irish Poet Brendan Kenelly once wrote, “If you want to serve the age, betray it”. In my experience, beginning to confound the expectations of my education and societal destiny to pursue a certain career path was not only liberating for myself, but I hope contributes, in a small way, to a constructive critique of a society that often falls short of promoting a healthy and happy lifestyle, particularly among the professional class.