What is the ‘Good Life’? Leisure, work, and parenting


What’s a good life? Why do we work? What is work, anyway? If I’m not being paid, but I have to get up at 4 am, is it still work? Is it still a good life?

These are the kinds of things I’ve been thinking about in the last few weeks. I’m currently on maternity leave spending time with my tiny daughter Hannah, and this experience is letting me think in all kinds of different ways. It’s a brief, and intense time – in November, I will start a few months of full-time work as part of the European Network of Excellence in Internet Science, and in January I take up a tenure-track position in the Department of Media and Communication at the LSE. But in the meantime I’m changing diapers, singing songs, giving hugs, walking around the city, and thinking.

The Economics of the Good Life – Enough is Enough

This morning, philosopher Edward Skidelsky and his father, political economist Robert Skidelsky discussed greed on BBC’s Today program. They argued that in contemporary society we have more than enough resources for everyone to live a life of leisure, which in the past was only available to the well-to-do. Such a life of leisure would mean stepping back from pure capitalist consumption. But it would also mean, as Edward said in the program, “living more spontaneously, less purposively. That’s something that people are frightened of.” The Skidelskys have also published an article In Praise of Leisure in the Chronicle of Higher Education, pointing out that we live in a world of abundance, not scarcity. There is no financial reason, then, that some people need to work 50 hours a week to meet needs, while others don’t seem to have enough.

The Sidelskys are clear that they are not advocating Marxism. Indeed, they claim that increased prosperity should ‘lift all boats’ not make everyone perfectly equal. To address the consequences of inequality, they propose a consumption tax to replace an income tax. This, they say, will help people to realize when ‘enough’ is ‘enough’.

 The Philosophy of the Good Life – Meaningful Work

Certainly, acknowledging that we live among abundance and that inequality is a result of meeting wants, not needs, is part of thinking about a ‘good life’. But others have considered it more philosophically. An American pragmatist tradition that includes Henry David Thoreau, John Dewey and Albert Borgmann – as well as Matthew Crawford, the philosopher and motorcycle mechanic – has thought about how meaningful work creates the good life. This is connected to what the Skidelskys think is real leisure: the ability to engage in an activity for its own sake, and not because of economic necessity. So what happens when someone who loves to think and write steps out of the job that pays her to think, write, and teach?

Out of Work? Thinking and Parenting

The past few weeks of maternity leave have made me think about the life of leisure in a different way. I am responding to the needs of Hannah, yes, but I am also living life at a pace which I have rarely ever experienced – a pace dictated by impulse, interest and intuition, not by arbitrary demands. In some ways, it is similar to the pace of life I lived as a student, in the rare periods when I was not frantically worrying that I had written enough or read enough. Compared to a life responding to work demands, it is slow. Much of it is concerned with responding to Hannah’s needs, rather than my wants. But many of those wants are simple, leaving me with a surprising amount of time to think.

I think about work, I think about parenting. I think about urban design, the history of London, the cultures of Brixton and Kennington, why babies wiggle, what music is, and sometimes I even think about the future of the internet. There is a freedom in this thinking, but it is difficult to specify what it results in, or to find time to write anything down. Babies are endlessly demanding, and household chores are by definition, never done. This puts my ‘good life’ in direct contrast with what the pragmatists (by and large men) describe as the good life. For them, the good life depends on feeling the satisfaction of having done work well, and on having fully engaged in a process which is not linear (like consumption) but cyclical and reflexive.

Borgmann’s famous example of living the good life compares the process of heating a house with a wood stove versus turning on central heating. Chopping wood, filling the wood stove and lighting the fire leads to a feeling of connection and participation in the process, which produces the satisfaction of the good life. But applied to many tasks of caring and home-making, the process is less obvious. You have to change thousands of diapers before a child is toilet trained. Regardless of whether you wash with soap and a scrubbing rock or a new washing machine, the laundry always builds up again. In between, you have many snatches of time to think but not long periods of time to write. Facebook and Twitter become compelling because it takes only seconds to post – and you might receive a response (which is unlikely for a long post about the good life).

Reconsidering the Good Life

Several things about this experience make me want to reconsider these existing ideas about the good life. First of all, one of the consequences of capitalism has been, paradoxically, the valuing of caring (or ‘women’s’) work. Paid parental leave* acknowledges that childrearing is work, as do the sky-high prices for daycare places in big cities. This makes me worry that in a Skidelsky world of needs instead of wants, the autonomy of women and girls would appear less valuable, and that parenting and caring work would again become invisible. Second of all, the contemplative quality of the American pragmatist’s ‘good life’ seems to depend on the ability to get feedback on work being done, and to be able to reflect on the quality of that work. For Matthew Crawford, for example, the satisfaction gained from fixing a motorbike is related to the validation on the quality of the job that he receives from motorbike riders.

Parenting, on the other hand, is short on validation. Infants don’t tell you when you’ve done a good job, and society at large has much more to say about bad parenting than it does about good parenting. Indeed, an entire book has been written that attempts to point out that parenting is valuable work, even when it doesn’t look like much is happening. This is one step towards accepting the work of parenting as part of a ‘good life’ that includes much toil, but much imagination as well.

As for me, I will be walking and thinking, and sometimes writing. Is it work? Yes, and important work, if we see Hannah as a member of a future society. But is it the only key to the ‘good life’ of the mind? I am not sure.

*NOTE: Long, underpaid maternity leave reinforces the idea that caring and parenting is of lower value than other forms of work. From a ‘good life’ perspective, a much better policy would be to provide better-paid periods of parental leave, and to make it mandatory for both parents to take some of it. But this is a discussion for another day . . .