Film / Book Reviews

Making a living and making a life

Feb 2003    

The Future of Success

Author: Robert B. Reich

ROBERT B. REICH, a political economist, was a distinguished public servant who served under three US Presidents and was the Secretary of Labour during Mr Bill Clinton’s presidency. As a member of the Cabinet he found his job better than any other one and loved it and was consumed by it.

He confessed: “In the morning. I couldn’t wait to get to the office. At night, I left it reluctantly. Even when I was at home, part of my mind remained at work … I lost touch with my family, seeing little of my wife or my two sons. I lost contact with old friends. I even began to lose contact with myself other than what the job required.

“Then one evening I phoned home to tell the boys I wouldn’t make it back in time to say good night. I’d already missed five bedtimes in a row. Sam, the younger of the two, said that was OK, but asked me to wake him up whenever I got home. I explained that I’d be back so late that he would have gone to sleep long before; it was probably better if I saw him in the next morning. But he insisted. I asked him why. He said he just wanted to know I was there, at home. To this day, I can’t explain precisely what happened to me that moment. Yet I suddenly knew I had to leave the job.”

Reich subsequently resigned, which surprised everyone.

Many who are juggling between personal life, family commitments and work responsibilities find it impossible to maintain a proper balance and begin to trade off. They feel that they have no option if they want to have food on the table, roof over their head, and wheels under their feet. It is felt that a high-powered or a well-paid job is not compatible with a balanced life. Sacrifices have to be made and usually it is the areas of personal and family life.

It was significant that Reich, who dealt with work and the economy, and especially the new economy, made the choice to resign from the work which was so satisfying to him. He pursued the issue and wrote this book about “making a living and making a life, and why it not only seems to be but actually is getting harder to do both”.

The new economy has brought about a cornucopia of goodies. There is an abundance of things that make life exciting, comfortable and convenient. The watchword of our present generation seems to be “upgrading.” We are constantly upgrading our lives – moving to a better job, to a better home, to a better country. Even church buildings are levelled and upgraded to a modern structure with state-of-the-art equipment.

Reich indicates this paradox: “Most of us are earning more money and living better in material terms than we (or our parents) did a quarter of a century ago, around the time when some of the technologies on which the new economy is based – the microchip, the personal computer, the Internet – first emerged. You’d think, therefore, that it would be easier, not harder, to attend to the parts of our lives that exist outside paid work. Yet by most measures we’re working longer and more frantically than before, and the time and energy left for our non-working lives are evaporating.”

Surveys show that the typical American works 350 more hours annually than the typical European and more hours than the industrious Japanese. But only 8 per cent say that they prefer fewer hours of work for less pay. The vast majority want to continue to work for long hours for they are driven to earn more money to survive in the new economy. So instead of slowing down they are rattling up the rat race. It is therefore a problem to keep the balance between making a living and making a life for the new economy dictates that attention has to be focused on work than on personal and family life. “As wondrous as the new economy is, we are also losing parts of our lives to it – aspects of family lives, our friendships, our communities, ourselves.”

With clarity and insight Reich analyses some aspects of the new economy and its consequences.

It is the Age of the Better Deal and there is something always better. We can get exactly what we want instantly and get the best value for money. Products are getting better all the time and we are tempted to choose those with new and improved added features. Just look at the number and variety of mobile phones on sale every day.

The new economy spurs innovation and the rush is to produce things better, faster and cheaper. We are confused and become more brand conscious and trust the brand which has been widely advertised.

In the keen competition in the new economy companies and workers encounter the obsolescence of loyalty on the part of the employees to the employer and the companies to their community or their nation. Movement is towards the situation that is most beneficial to them because the primary concern is the bottom line.

Employment as we know it can no longer be steady and you are selling your services to anyone who is willing to pay the price for them. Earnings become more volatile and less predictable. Gifted and ambitious people have more opportunities and the disparities of income and wealth will widen considerably.

As a result people will have to work longer and harder. People generally work very hard most of the time and frequently stay late at work. Married couples are forced to work to increase the family income and balance the family budget. All these affect family life and our community.

With all these frightening prospects of the new economy what can we do? Is the course of action that Reich took a way of escape from the rat race? Are we doomed to lead the frenzied life in a fragmented society? Reich quotes the classic economist Adam Smith: “For what purpose is the toil and bustle of this world? What is the end of avarice and ambition?” These are important questions that we have to answer.

Ultimately Reich contends that it is a personal choice. This is dependent upon how society decides to organise itself. You can choose to work less and earn less so that you have more time for yourself and family, friends and community. It is still a question of maintaining a certain balance that you have defined for yourself. It is up to us to manage our time and simplify our lives. If not, it will be a nightmare when our marriage goes on the rocks, our children fail and get into trouble, society collapses and goes down the drain. We must engage in serious reflection over what we are honestly doing with our life and compare with the life that we like to live.

Our personal choice alone is not enough for we have to consider the public choice as well. The public also needs to reflect on “the merits of the new economy in terms of the quality of the lives people lead within it”. A new and better social balance has to be put in place. Reich calls for a renunciation of the excesses of acquisitive individualism. The goals of a balanced society as listed by Reich are: Cushion people against sudden economic shocks, widen the circle of prosperity, give caring attention to those who need it most, reversing the sorting mechanism especially in education.

What is the future of success? The choice is yours!

 

A BALANCED LIFE

‘It is felt that a high-powered or a well-paid job is not compatible with a balanced life. Sacrifices have to be made and usually it is the areas of personal and family life.’

The Rev Dr Yap Kim Hao, a member of the Methodist Message Editorial Board, was the first Asian Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore.

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