Children are a public good. Caregiving is a public good. Your brain and your skills and your vote and your volunteer time and your relationships are also public goods.
Sure, your work — the one thing that late capitalism acknowledges as productive — is also a public good. But it is not the only one.
Right now we are caught in a false dichotomy that says that your work life and your economic productivity should supersede your family, your caregiving and your health. This is because we’ve set our economy and our policy to reinforce specific ideas predicated on a particular set of conditions.
But these conditions no longer apply.
We are only just starting, and in the face of unprecedented circumstances, to understand that you can’t fix a structural problem by sheer force of personal will. That is part of what makes the current pandemic and what it demands of us so incredibly challenging, personally, professionally and civically.
But civics and public policy depend on a deeply held belief that we are in this thing together. That the whole is greater (and more important) than the sum of its parts. That by extension children — and all the other things mentioned above — are essential to our communities. That caring for the young, caring for our elders, caring for each other and protecting our families and our health is not only important but a duty that can and should be shared across our communities, our society, our nation.
It is long past time for us to acknowledge the truth about our common connections. It is long past time to acknowledge that organizations are not yet set up to recognize (and capitalize on) relational obligations.
Our systems still force the choice between work and family — and still endlessly encourage women in particular to seek “work/life balance” (whether it exists or not). And that is why it is time for a shift in conversation about the value that caregiving confers on all of us.
So what can we do? And how can we do it in the midst of so much uncertainty?
The coronavirus crisis actually provides an unprecedented opportunity to answer the question: What kind of society do we want to live in? What do we truly value? How do we make policy choices that reflect those values?
Now is the time to acknowledge that our whole lives must be part of all of our economic and policy conversations. True human flourishing depends on the thriving of all people, not just some. We depend on each other — and that “we” includes our children and our grandparents and anyone who requires care and connection.
As we build new systems we must foreground this principle so that we are not forced to choose between one sphere or another, one conversation or another, one way of being or another. We cannot maintain a system that requires the choice between work and family.
A new definition of productivity — one that encompasses and highlights the essential nature of generative tasks — will help to break down the barriers between work and family. The aim is a system that rewards all work as productive, a system that supports those who bear and raise children, provide care for the aged, offer support to their friends and neighbors as strongly as those who work for wages. A system that also provides ample space, opportunity and support for those who seek to do both.
Systems change requires more than shifting definitions. Adjustments will need to come from all sectors — government, private industry and individuals — to make headway that benefits women, men, families and our communities. Nothing has made this more clear more quickly than COVID-19. Temporary policy changes and creative solutions have started to emerge in the pandemic. In the next column I’ll describe examples and look at how those efforts can make a difference on the other side of our current crisis.
Now is the time to pull together. The author Caitlyn Collins puts it succinctly when she says, “You cannot fix a social problem with individual solutions.”
We need our friends and neighbors and local officials. We are the ones we have to live with, depend on and look at — now and when we emerge from our houses and start our new lives together.