‘(Part) time for all’: Nedelsky’s radical vision

Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 11.51.22 amOn Friday I attended a seminar at Melbourne Law School to meet Jennifer Nedelsky and discuss her work on creating new social norms around work and care. Her proposal – in a nutshell – is that all of us in Western societies should work a maximum of 30 hours/week and minimum of 12 in paid employment, and do a minimum of 12, maximum of 30 hours unpaid care work.

The goal of such a radical transformation of our time-poor lives is that currently care relies on and reinforces inequality. According to Nedelsky’s model, if we equalise our responsibility for caring then the hierarchies implicit in our current model of working life will be evened out. Care will become explicitly valued, policy-makers will have experienced caring to understand the issues at stake (and therefore develop better and more responsive policy), and our relationships will be enhanced.

Nedelsky’s utopian model is exactly what we need to shift the debate about work-life balance from hand-wringing to the genuine social reform we need – although there are inevitably some issues to be ironed out. This post distills my understanding of Nedelsky’s proposal, and draws on comments and discussion offered by participants in the Melbourne seminar. Inevitably I have not canvassed the full extent of her model – there is so much to think about.

The double shift

Nedelsky acknowledges that she started from a gender equality position, but as she has said elsewhere, her approach encompasses equality more broadly. My own research focuses on gender equality in terms of property and my interest in Nedelsky’s ideas stems from the intractable problem that entrenched social expectations of women’s caring impinge significantly on their financial security. This occurs through the interwoven threads of multiple economic and social institutions. Lower paying jobs, precarious work, less superannuation, less career advancement, more unpaid work in the home, increasing aged homelessness – and so it goes.

I therefore find ‘(part)-time work for all’ an elegant solution that targets the underlying problem with myriad institutions. Where anti-discrimination law has hit a brick wall (or a glass ceiling, I suppose) Nedelsky proposes changes to social norms that continue to inform workplace relations and economic policy.

The ‘atomic blast’ of state enforcement

Some would suggest that state enforcement of the proposal is imperative to its success. Nedelsky cautions however against an assumption that if we accept that care relies on and reinforces inequality then necessarily the state must be involved. State involvement requires further contemplation. She is hopeful however that social norms once established, will do the job.

For example, it is said that men in Sweden now take paternity leave as a matter of course – that they would be looked down upon in their circles, if they did not. This broad attitude however has been reinforced through state promotion of paternity leave – without necessarily state sanction. So it is acknowledged, I think, that certainly the state will be involved in supporting the new norms, but not necessarily as the enforcer.

For this reason, tax laws, worker entitlements, industrial relations are just some areas that require significant overhaul. Feminist scholars and policy makers have called for some time for significant policy and regulatory changes to support women’s full engagement in the workplace, and to support their caring work. Nedelsky’s framework, in my view, simply crystalises the purpose of such policy (r)evolution and takes it away from women’s issues to social issues more broadly.

What is care?

As Nedelsky’s proposal is one of public engagement and democratic debate about work and care, this remains to be resolved in its finest detail. Broadly however, Nedelsky envisages both nurturant and non-nurturant care. The former would include caring for one’s children and perhaps the children of others, of the aged, and the sick. Non-nurturant care is more about caring for one’s environment – housekeeping, garden maintenance, shoveling snow off the footpath (not so much of an issue here in Cairns, but I’m sure an equivalent can be found!) and so on. Non-nurturant caring though must bear some relation to a person – so that the person may feel that they are cared for through that activity.

Essential to understanding Nedelsky’s position, I think, is appreciating her goal of enhancing relationships – and that both giving and receiving care is reflective and generative of relationships. So while the  proposal allows prioritisation of the nuclear family as those to whom care is provided, it extends beyond to community. One’s community and therefore those for whom one cares might comprise the immediate neighbourhood, or it might be other groups such as church community.

I get the impression that community, apart from family perhaps, is seen as spatially local. I wonder about communities that are constituted through or mediated by online technologies. Wellman and Rainie write about the ‘new social operating system’ and provide examples of effective community-building – and care – in and through an online environment. There is no reason to think that Nedelsky’s proposal excludes such communities, but I wonder if there are additional dimensions that are evolving as a consequence of digital technologies.

Is it care if we measure it?

As we become expected to meet our ‘care KPIs’, will our weekly phone call or visit to our ageing parents become simply another duty and devoid of the love and altruism that we invest in such encounters? This is a reasonable question, I think, but one that in my view fails to apprehend the nature of existing norms of care.

Already, those who do caring work are expected to do it – albeit as a virtue or a moral duty. The norms that compel us to perform the duty are sufficiently strong that many of us will perform the care whether or not we wish to do so. Already the question may be asked ‘are you doing this because you actually care, or because you feel you have to?’ Whether or not people are intrinsically or extrinsically motivated to care for others is a different proposition from the norm that establishes the expectation of care in the first place.

Similar arguments occur in the context of payment for women’s work in the home. Some claim it devalues women’s altruistic motivations. Others say that if we do not attribute a value, then it leaves room for exploitation. In short, I subscribe to the argument that commodification of care is not a necessary consequence of affording it a value. On this argument, affording care a ‘value’ of contributing to the weekly care component would similarly not alter its character as caring.

Class, and global justice

I read Nedelsky’s work through the lens of my own experiences and it made complete sense to me. I did note however that examples of the stresses of work and impossibility of work-life balance tended to list professors, lawyers and those in the financial sector. I wondered whether this was professional women all just talking to each other…

But Nedelsky takes care to highlight that the proposals depend upon a basic wage for all. In fact, part of her project is to overturn the hierarchies – in class and race – that accompany care. But for all in society to adopt these norms, all must have access to a basic wage. Whether this is a minimum wage or a living wage will have different implications for different groups – but it will mean that all are supported in being able to undertake paid work within the parameters she suggests.

More complex perhaps is the issue of global justice and how Nedelsky’s proposal might play out in this sense. There may be more to come in this area.


When reading Nedelsky’s proposals, I did wonder about the place of education in the new order. Not work, or leisure, or care…education is now a feature of our society. Certainly I have spent over 10 years of my life since having children, in higher education. Many of my students are carers and workers, who are educating themselves.

Higher education is increasingly seen as a private good – where in my view, it is a public good. I wonder if there is room within Nedelsky’s model for education so that we might build on what I think are existing norms of lifelong learning?

Power and vulnerability

While this radical proposal is all about subverting existing power and vulnerability in the interests of equality, like any social shaping there is always the possibility of perversion (see existing social order for a good example…).

So what if freed from the obligation to work full time, and afforded social support for caring, women became expected to procreate. What if the long standing policing of women’s bodies was super charged by a society in which caring was now so valuable? I think about issues of reproductive agency and also of the increasing move towards judging pregnant women for how they behave.

How do we protect the vulnerable for whom we care? In Australia we see the disastrous consequences of ‘care’ through the Royal Commission into Institutionalised Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and through the Bringing Them Home Report. To generate true relationships through care, I suspect a minimum of bureaucracy is required. But there must be some kind of threshold to ensure respectful and safe care.

Hope and optimism

Nedelsky’s proposal is elegant and bold. We simply must resolve the issues she raises if we are to generate equality. Importantly her proposal challenges us to think about how we resolve the apparently intractable problems inherent in work and care. Until we recreate the ‘ideal worker’ we will continue to live in a world fenced in by work, while women in particular will be bounded by care. Surely we can hope for better.

One thought on “‘(Part) time for all’: Nedelsky’s radical vision

  1. Pingback: 96th Down Under Feminists Carnival – Hoyden About Town

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