My perfect excuse: the kids

Even workaholics hang photos of their children on their office walls, if only as a memory aid
Image of Simon Kuper

I have discovered a brilliant trick. Recently, when people have asked me to do pointless bits of work (have lunch, sit on an unpaid panel, comment on somebody’s high-school paper), I’ve hit them with my killer excuse: “Sorry. I’d love to, but I’m too busy. I’ve got three little kids.” So far it’s working beautifully: it reduces my workload and raises my status.

We columnists are prone to treating our own life events as harbingers of a new zeitgeist, but something significant may actually be changing: it’s becoming possible for fathers to use childcare as an excuse at work. That’s because status for men in western countries is changing. Old status was, “I’m so busy that I can’t even talk to you properly because everyone is sending me messages on my BlackBerry”. New status is, “I work and I’m raising my kids. Take that, sucker.” That changes the workplace.

When I started work in 1995, I thought that in the office you could only show your working face. If someone asked you to do something, you said, “Yes.” It was your job. Everything else had to fit around work. Once, covering Amsterdam for the FT, I phoned a big Dutch company that had just reported quarterly results. I asked for the chairman. He’d gone home. It was 5.15pm. “Can he call me?” I asked. “He doesn’t work evenings,” his secretary said. I was aghast. This bloke was breaking the unwritten rules for men.

Most companies assumed their employees were forever on call. Karen Kornbluh knows about parents and workplaces. As policy director and confidante of Senator Barack Obama, she helped shape his thinking on the topic. Now she’s the US’s ambassador to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Part of the problem, Kornbluh told me, is that workers are still often judged on their working hours. “It might have made sense to measure productivity by hours in the chair or at the assembly line at one point. In the service economy there aren’t great ways of measuring productivity, so a lot of the time people fall back on these old tools.” Often the men who work the longest hours become bosses, and then demand long hours of others.

And so everyone complains about being busy, but does nothing about it. That may be because in the US in particular, being busy gives you status, argues Edson Rodriguez, a sociologist at the University of Southern California. “It serves as a marker of success (unlike a century ago),” he says.

Yet the moment you perform a time-and-motion study on yourself, you see how much of your working day is almost pointless and can be cut painlessly. Ironically, it’s often very successful people who figure this out first. Cherie Blair told last month’s annual forum of the OECD that in the 1980s, when her husband Tony was a thrusting young politician, “he was very much a hands-on father”. (She did add that he often shirked on housework.)

Like the Dutch company chairman, Blair had figured out early that most work is unnecessary. Decades later, I’ve grasped that too. Previously when people asked, “When can we meet?” I could never think of a good excuse. Now I’ve adapted Nancy Reagan’s legendary anti-drugs slogan: Just say no.

“Sorry, I have three little kids,” I say. So far, people have accepted the excuse. More than that: they’ve recoiled with respect. After all, even workaholics hang photos of their children on their office walls, if only as a memory aid. Nobody has brushed aside my excuse yet, or said, “Can’t your wife do it?” In fact the excuse works so well I plan to keep wielding it long after the children are married. I understand it might not work if you trade bonds, or you’re scrambling for every penny, but most of us are somewhere in between. Not only does my excuse buy me time, it also makes me look a better human being – always a useful trick in the workplace. I’d guess that most westerners under 50 now look askance at fathers who don’t do childcare. I’ve noticed that gossip increasingly targets these dads. (“He can’t change a nappy!”) Kornbluh adds a caution: using childcare as an excuse might raise status for male workers. However, it doesn’t for women. When they plead childcare, it can seem to affirm old stereotypes: look, she’s not serious about her job.

But Kornbluh says that once men openly juggle work and childcare, women will become freer to do so. She says: “You stop having a situation where it’s assumed that a good worker is somebody who doesn’t have responsibilities to take care at home. Now you think every employee needs to sleep. You need to think, ‘Every employee may need to pick up some childcare. How are we going to arrange that?’” I am converted to flexible work. Next I’ll tell the children, “Sorry, I have to work,” and with one bound I’ll be free.

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