A suicidal young woman stops her car on a
bridge in Seattle in the middle of the morning rush hour and climbs over the
barrier. The police try to negotiate. Commuters, meanwhile, urge her to “jump,
bitch”, as if this is some form of demented television game show. After three
hours, the 28-year-old obeys the crowd. She survives but breaks her back.
We have long been familiar with the negative
impact of unemployment: depression, alcoholism, divorce, poverty. We are now
also more aware of the importance of a better trade off between a job and a
life outside employment.
Next week, for instance, is Work-Life Balance
Week, during which issues arising from
our frenzied seven-days-a-week, 24-hours a day economy will be debated. Among
these issues are decreasing job security, downsizing, outsourcing and global
competition… and each must be faced with far less back-up from the extended
The assumption behind much of the debate is
that the stress that comes from blue and white collar jobs frays the family
terribly – in a different but, sometimes, almost as lethal way as no work at
all. The Seattle episode, however,
provides a snapshot of the frightening effect that work is also having on the
ties that bind us together as a decent, civilised community.
According to the Seattle police, motorists, far
from demonstrating any compassion for the young woman, were angry that their
journey to work had been interrupted. Their collective reaction was to demand
Academic Richard Sennett, in The Corrosion of
Capitalism argues that the short-term,
view of employees as disposable which often pervades the modern
workplace is inevitably influencing the way in which we relate to each other in
private as well. A lack of commitment, the absence of empathy, the elevation of
the self above all else, is the dark side of the so-called work ethic – as was
revealed on that bridge in Seattle.
The good news that emerged last week is that
unemployment may now have some positive consequences. A five-year study
revealed that young people are redefining what it means to be a man or a woman.
The demise of the traditional male breadwinner role and the end of status as
defined only by the size of a wage packet may be clearing space to allow men
and women to negotiate a new contract.
According to the study, in Wales and north east
England where there continues to be high male unemployment, young men
increasingly accept women in the workplace, even if they themselves are
jobless. And, what is more, they also appreciate the need to share domestic and
It’s a paradox of our times that while the
richly employed can behave like barbarians, we are also witnessing the
emergence of a more rounded, emotionally literate masculinity from the ashes of
our traditional industries. Sadly, that won’t do much for the family income, but
it may yet prove a huge bonus for the way men and women learn to live together.