One of my more intriguing tasks in the morning every day at work is to listen to the people who call in and say they will be absent or late because of unplanned or unforeseen circumstances. It may not come as a surprise that one hears the same group of people call in over and over again, whether it is because they do not leave enough time for traffic and so are regularly late, or because they suffer from interminable health crises that seem never to permit them to work, or because they are calling about their kiddos who seem to need continual care. Some people, of course, do not come or call at all, and must be roused from their slumber to give an explanation of why they are not there. Without seeking to pass judgment on the people who call in, whether some of them need an earlier shift to help them avoid traffic from Vancouver , or a later shift so that they can drive their kiddos to school in the morning because for some reason those kids find it unbearable to ride on the bus, or whether some of them need to better plan their mornings so that they can come to work on time and ready to work, it is clear that there are consistent patterns with regards to work-life balance that one can see by gathering data on such matters.
Most of the unscheduled absences I have to deal with come from two categories, both of which exist where there is substantial tension between work and some other issue going on in someone’s life. On the one hand, we have people whose ability to work because of health reasons is limited, and where such people for whatever reason are unable or unwilling to transition from work into short-term or long-term disability while dealing with said health concerns. On the other hand, we have people whose personal lives regularly prevent them from working as diligently as they should, and who need the extra money that work provides even though they cannot find a schedule that fits their outside concerns, especially needy and demanding family members. In both cases, we have people who want the money that is provided by work, and who at their best can do good work and productive work, but who are simply not reliable enough to do that work often enough, and so they make more work for those of us that have to listen and record their various and sundry excuses and report the information to others.
As a college student in Southern California, I had the chance to watch a socially conscious play called Living Out that dealt with the cycles of childcare that family members had to deal with. The main character of the play was an illegal immigrant from Central America whose children were being taken care of by other relatives for much less money than she made to take care of the baby of a well-heeled power couple of two lawyers. The play, in a somewhat heavy-handed fashion, argued that the lure of money kept many people in the workforce in a cycle, in that people were paid to take care of the children of others and so needed to pay other people to take care of their own kids, and so on, in a sort of infinite regress. The same phenomenon can be seen when it comes to taking care of elderly family members, in that instead of serving as caretakers ourselves we tend to outsource such responsibilities to others, which induces others to then outsource their own caretaking duties to other less expensive options. One sees this sort of problem over and over again.
Ultimately, what we see in the small scope of a single place of employment is a symbol of larger and more consistent problems. The problem is that we are a society that is living largely without reserves, largely without backup, largely without any sort of slack. Every additional demand placed upon us requires something to be taken from someone else. Increased expenses and decreased real wages lead to pressures to earn more or spend less money, and that means a reduction of one’s time as commutes are lengthened and as one’s hours of employment increase. The demands of the people in our lives must be taken care of, either by making our work less reliable, or by our hiring other people to do that which we cannot do for ourselves, whether that is cook or take care of our kiddos. I speak here, of course, hypothetically, having no kiddos of my own, which I hope does not make me any less sympathetic to the problems of others. Contrary to the expectations we would have by imagining a great separation between the macro and micro picture of our society, we see on the largest levels of society a certain harshness that comes from living continually under pressure, a harshness that translates into our behavior towards others. We all feel under the gun, and when a domino falls somewhere, it triggers a lengthy cascade of responses that is often far disproportionate to the initial difficulties. Yet that is the life we live, and we must deal with it as best as we can.
 See, for example: