Greedy private life?

Malaysian IT employees are required to work until 5:30 pm every day, while their Norwegian colleagues often work a flexi-time schedule. So why is it the Norwegians who complain about a time crunch?
Norwegian IT employees often leave work early to spend time with their families and then work an hour or two in the evenings after their children have gone to bed. (Illustration photo:

“I would say that if you are a good Norwegian, then you have a bad conscience about work and a bad conscience about the things you should have done – in relation to fixing up the house, being home with the children and the like – But...I cut myself some slack because I think this is a general problem.” (Petrus, assistant manager in an IT company)

“Norwegian working life is often described as greedy, but I wanted to explore this from a different angle. I agree that employers should take into account that their employees have a private life, but it is also up to the individuals to adapt the demands of the job to the things they need to make time for in their daily life. And many of them are able to do this quite well,” says Birgit Nestvold Singstad.

Her recently completeled doctoral thesis for the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) is part of a larger project that compares IT workers in Norway, Malaysia and California, with special focus on how parents with small children combine work and family life. The IT industry was chosen because it is considered to be quite demanding of an employee’s time. This is often mentioned as one reason that women are underrepresented in this profession in Norway.

“In Malaysia, however, about 50 percent of IT workers are women, and little consideration is given to whether they have small children at home,” Nestvold Singstad points out. 

Malaysia: long work days 

It is common for Norwegian IT employees to work a flexi-time schedule, and parents with small children often spend an hour or two working in the evenings. Malaysian IT workers have far less flexibility.

“Here the employees felt that they had flexibility if they were allowed to phone their children from the office or run important errands during working hours, such as seeing their doctor,” Nestvold Singstad explains.

In Malaysia, normal working hours are stipulated by the Employment Act as eight hours per day and 48 hours per week. Part-time work is highly unusual. In addition, many of the informants in Nestvold Singstad’s project had a long commute to work with many traffic jams during parts of the day. 

“My informants did not expect to be able to spend the afternoon with their children. It is the weekends that are family time. Moreover, sports and other activities are part of the school day so that parents are not responsible for following up on these things.”

In the researcher’s experience, the Malaysian employees did not feel the need to explain why they paid for domestic services such as housekeeping or why they hired a sitter for their children in the afternoons or bought pre-made food. However, the mothers felt that they had to defend their choice to continue working after the children were born.

“There is a generally held belief within society that the mother is the best caregiver, but opinion is divided about whether she should stay at home. These women argued that they can teach their children a lot because they have an advanced education and that this makes them good mothers.”

U.S.: dirty looks from other mothers

In the IT industry in California, it was difficult to find female informants who had children. The fathers who worked in the industry usually had stay-at-home wives.

“The work days are long and difficult to combine with being the primary caregiver of children. The few mothers who worked said that they got dirty looks from stay-at-home moms and that their children were not included in ‘play dates’ because the other mothers thought it was difficult to make plans with someone who was working,” explains Nestvold Singstad.

In the U.S. companies, it was important for employees to show that they were at the office, and it was noticed if they left early. They usually did not log on again from home. 

“At the same time, it was considered to be even more important there than here in Norway for parents to take care of their children themselves. Those who can afford it look after their children rather than send them to a child care centre. One of the mothers in our study had a stay-at-home husband, and another worked in the evenings while her ex-husband stayed with the children.”

Afternoons are family time

“The Norwegian informants take it for granted that the children will attend a child care centre, and they don’t make a problem out of their choice to send them there. Taking and picking up the children is an issue because it has an impact on the work day. The location of the child care centre in relation to the parents’ workplace and home determines how serious the time crunch becomes, and traffic jams can have major ramifications for the parents’ schedule,” says the researcher.

Birgit Nestvold Singstad. (Photo: Heidi Elisabeth Sandnes)

However, child care in the afternoons is perceived as more problematic.

“The time from when the child care centre closes until the children go to bed is regarded as family time. The Norwegian informants do not generally approve of using paid child care during this time of day, but they find it acceptable to use a sitter occasionally if a family member or friend looks after the children without pay. In that case, the experience is thought to be beneficial for both the child and the sitter,” says Nestvold Singstad.

In the afternoons the children also need to be taken to and picked up from various activities, and parents are often expected to be present and show interest in what their children are doing.

Many of the parents interviewed managed to fit everything into their schedules thanks to flexible working hours and the opportunity to work after the children have gone to bed.

“Some parents also hire people to clean or cook, but this choice has a moral component that the parents must explain and argue in favour of.”

See also: Norwegian families regard the au pair scheme as development aid 

Flexible working life

Nestvold Singstad has identified three ways of approaching the flexible workplace: flexibility critics, flexibility masters and the ambitious flexibility over-achievers. These can be recognised in all three countries, but most clearly in Norway.

“The critics feel that the flexibility eats them up; they can’t say no. The masters have often been through a learning period with a lot of struggle, but they have learned from it and handle the situation better,” says the researcher, who continues:

“The ambitious ones don’t want to lower their expectations about what they should be doing either at home or at work, but they feel that they don’t manage the combination very well – even though from the outside they appear to be superhuman. To have a life that is liveable, something has to give, and what many of my informants decide to drop is leisure time outside of the family.”

Time for the children

“The Norwegian welfare state is very clear about what is expected of parents. The prevailing norm is that good parents spend a lot of time with their children. For example, it is very unusual to allow someone besides the parents to care for a child younger than 10 months old.”

Malaysian mothers have a right to two months of maternity leave. Nestvold Singstad’s informants could imagine having a little more time, but they thought it would be terribly boring to stay at home for almost one year.

Norwegians probably also have higher expectations about spending time outside of both work and family than people in Malaysia and California do.

“Many Norwegians have a large circle of friends and acquaintances who they want to stay in touch with, and they have a high rate of participation in non-profit organizations.”

Norwegian-based theory

On the basis of the vast differences she has observed, Nestvold Singstad cautions against uncritically importing working life theory from abroad.

“It is not particularly difficult to combine family life and work in the IT industry in Norway, at least not in companies that are past the start-up phase. IT employees don’t work more overtime than other Norwegian employees,” says Nestvold Singstad.

“Much of the theory on ‘the greedy workplace’ comes from the U.S. and fits the conditions there much better. The welfare state gives us a security that neither Americans nor Malaysians have, which makes material prosperity much more important for them. Health insurance in the U.S. is connected with employment, and Malaysians who lose their job quickly end up on the street.”

Nonetheless, many Norwegian parents of small children feel that they never have enough time to do everything. Why is it so difficult to strike a balance between work, family life and leisure time?

“I’m somewhat opposed to the balance metaphor because it suggests a kind of static position. I would rather talk about harmony: People must handle the different sides of life and tolerate the ups and downs. From my data I see that the parents who are able to lower the demands they place on themselves while their children are small lead the most pleasant life,” says the researcher.

Translated by Connie Stultz.

Doctoral thesis

Singstad, Birgit Nestvold: Det «overbestemte» livet? Balansering av arbeid og familieliv i IT-bransjen i Norge, Malaysia og California (“The ‘over-committed’ life? Balancing work and family life in the IT industry in Norway, Malaysia and California”). Submitted to the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).

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