The Productive Life

I wandered into the comments section on an article again yesterday. I really ought to resist the urge to do that. The anger and finger pointing there is disheartening.

In any case, there was a man who had a lot to say about the pay gap between men and women. He expounded at length and I didn’t read most of it. His main point, if I am not mistaken, is that things are fine as they are and nothing should be done to address differences in men’s and women’s pay. It seemed, if I followed his many arguments correctly that it was really men who were discriminated against in public policy.

I’m not going to address any of that. There was one thing he said, though, that caught my attention. He described the world as divided into two spheres, the world of work outside the home and the world of caring for children. He called these two spheres the productive and the reproductive.

The expression was immediately grating in its equating of maleness with being “productive,” generally seen as a positive value and of women as doing something derivative of that (this is implied through the re-) but not creative in its own right. That is to say, the language implies that men make things of value and women support them by repeating the process– making new producers.

This whole way of looking at things implies that the reason we are born is to ensure we’ll have more middle managers, shop clerks, bankers and garbage collectors. I suppose you can envision the world this way, but it is all a little bit bleak, isn’t it?

Is it not better to see our labors existing to support human life? Do you live in order to be Director of Packaging, or are you Director of Packaging in order to have a life?

The notion that we exist for our job titles is depressing and flat in itself. It also diminishes anyone in the “reproductive” sphere. If the purpose of life is to reproduce client services representatives, then anyone without a job title can hardly be said to exist. Yes, you need women to be born so that they can be mothers of future construction workers and Amway salesmen, but otherwise there is not much point in them.

The notion that the world is naturally and neatly divided into these two spheres– of the home and the working world– came of age with industrialization. Imagine a world made up mostly of farmers. The labor and the household were united and the entire family was involved in maintaining the homestead, even if some tasks fell mostly to men and others mostly to women. They were mutually involved in the same enterprise.

But assuming that you must view the world as made up of these two distinct and separate spheres (home and work) would it not give human life a bit more meaning to say that there is the creative sphere and the sustaining sphere? There is the sphere that is responsible for creating and nurturing life and the sphere responsible for supporting that with labor outside the home?(There is no reason, incidentally, that men could not take the “creative” role just because they do not gestate their offspring.)

When you put the life first and describe labor as sustaining it, you end up with a more balanced, mutual and fulfilling picture of our existence.







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