In remarks to his Republican colleagues on Tuesday, Representative Paul Ryan laid out his conditions for taking the hard-to-sell speaker job: He would like widespread support from his party. And one other thing: “I cannot and will not give up my family time.”
This has provoked a bit of backlash. Bryce Covert at ThinkProgress highlighted the seeming hypocrisy of such a demand coming from a member of Congress who has opposed policies that would have helped other working parents have more time at home with their kids. Toward the other end of the political spectrum, Laura Ingraham took to Twitter to chastise Ryan for not being willing to sacrifice more for such a crucial job. “John Adams left his wife for years at a time to serve his country. George Washington left Mt Vernon for Valley Forge,” she tweeted.
But beyond the specifics of Ryan’s particular position, there are ways in which Paul Ryan’s situation is a perfect encapsulation of how America handles work-life conflict. Put simply: In America, time with family is a negotiating chip, something that workers who have bargaining power can get as part of their compensation for doing a job, just like higher wages or paid vacation time.
When it comes to those concrete benefits such as paid leave or higher wages, it’s no secret how this plays out: Elite workers at elite firms get the best benefit packages while lower-status employees who are more easily replaced get bubkes. Nothing illustrates this better than Netflix’s extremely generous parental leave, which it provides to its “salaried streaming employees” but not its workers at its DVD distribution centers. Though it is unusual for a firm to have such a stark, two-tier system, that divide is a rough approximation of the divide that runs throughout the economy. This is normal market behavior in the absence of some sort of corrective policy such as paid family leave, and indeed such a policy is absent for most of America, except in a few states.
But Ryan’s request here is more unusual: He’s not asking for a discrete, occasional perk such as paternity leave but the more amorphous nicety of “family time”—regular old work-life balance. This is not something most elite employees have figured out how to secure for themselves, regardless of the power they may have. As Claire Cain Miller wrote in The New York Times earlier this year, “The pressure of a round-the-clock work culture—in which people are expected to answer emails at 11 p.m. and take cellphone calls on Sunday morning—is particularly acute in highly skilled, highly paid professional services jobs like law, finance, consulting and accounting.”
And that same problem may confront Ryan, as there’s little to guarantee that precious family time once he’s in the job. For now, though, he’s got little to lose: “This is not a job I’ve ever wanted, I’ve ever sought,” he said, and there’s no better position to be in in a negotiation than being willing to walk away.