Let’s Continue Referring to the “Work-Life Balance”

Adam Gurri has an interesting piece in which he criticizes the phrase “work-life” balance:

I think that “work-life balance” is an unfortunate phrase that has a great deal of currency. I’m not saying that everyone should just give up on having time to spend living outside of work. I’m glad there’s a conversation about prioritizing other parts of your life. But they are other parts. The simple point that I want to make is that you cannot compartmentalize your life; work is a part of your life and the rest of your life enters into your work from countless directions. What we want is not a “work-life balance” but a healthy, happy life overall, which must necessarily include a healthy relationship with whatever it is you do to make a living.

His point is that there isn’t a life bucket and a work bucket. Rather, there is just a life bucket, and part of it is work and part of it is leisure. You see, the “work” is part of your life as well.

But Gurri’s understanding of work here is deeply at odds with the traditions, norms, and conventions among Western societies, the Anglosphere in particular. Under the traditional master-servant common law, servants (think non-managerial employees) are essentially tools of masters (think bosses). The bosses assemble together machines, land, and servants and then orchestrate them to produce. When servants are on the clock (and even off the clock in some cases), it is not their life. They essentially belong to the master as an instrument of the master’s production.

Obviously statutes and some minor common law evolution has obviated this master-servant tradition a bit, but not that much. Think about why employers are responsible for the torts of their employees when the employees carry out the torts in the scope of their employment. This follows straightforwardly from the idea of the employee being merely an instrument of the employer while on the clock. Just as a boss would be liable for harm caused by their machines, they are liable for harms caused by their employees/servants.

At the common law, servants/employees are contrasted with independent contractors (think independent plumbers for instance) in that independent contractors control and direct their own work. They are also contrasted with agents (think executives) who can act on behalf of and bind the employer into contracts and such. So, the category of common laboring is actually set aside as different from other categories of work that don’t treat the person purely like a tool/instrument of the boss.

To be sure, the yuppie usage of the word “work-life” balance is troubling, and I presume that is what Gurri has in mind. Yuppies use it to refer to their balancing of their desperately vain efforts to achieve occupation-based status and spending time with their families.

But we shouldn’t let that usage tank the basic traditional distinction between work and life, which still describes the way real laborers navigate the world. As is reflected in the common law and our deep traditions and conventions, when such laborers are at “work,” it is not their “life.” In those moments, they belong to the boss as a tool to be used. During laboring times, they are — under both our traditions and Marxist thought — alienated from their purposive life because they do not get to direct and control their own work.