The Deal magazine (The Australian)

By Lyndall Crisp

While there has been plenty of research about divorce and the fragility of the family, academic Allison Pugh found that little had been directed at the role played by what happens in the workplace. So the assistant professor from the University of Virginia's Department of Sociology decided to interview 80 couples who had varying experiences of dislocation for a book she aims to finish by next June.

"There is a fair amount of research on job insecurity and the decline of the career and how we handle that, but not much on non-work consequences, on how insecurity at work shapes how we feel about home," says Pugh (right), who is on a one-year fellowship with the University of Sydney's US Studies Centre.

"I am trying to get these two unsettled spheres into the same analytical box.

"I was looking for parents of teenagers, for [people who] have had to explain commitment to somebody. What were they doing to prepare them for the future? Were they trying to make them fl exible and adaptable or were they saying 'be loyal'?

What were they trying to inculcate?"

Pugh did most of the face-to-face, 2.5-hour interviews in Virginia before she moved to Australia with her family in July; the rest are being done by graduate students.

"I want to know how people handle economic challenges, how we, as a culture, experience and handle job insecurity, the decline of the career, the evaporation of what you can rely on at work in terms of longevity. What does commitment mean in this age of fl exibility? I'm interested in shifting notions of what we owe each other, how people justify commitment in the different spheres of their lives and how these ideas and justifi cations are informed by greater insecurity."

The interviews were highly emotional, with many couples in tears. "I thought it was about commitment, but it ends up being about betrayal. They were telling me how they had expected commitment from various sources and instead were betrayed."

Her research is incomplete, but several ideas have emerged from preliminary analysis. First, the interviewees had low expectations of their employer. "My interviewees were fully on board with the collapse of the social contract, with the idea that the employer no longer owes much to employees. They bought into that line, the notion that it's every man for himself.

Employers have few obligations beyond a pay-cheque. At the same time, they told me what a great work ethic they had.

"What's interesting is the cultural discourse. They don't expect commitment from the employer, but they do expect it from themselves. It's almost as if they have gotten rid of the social contract - it's dissipated between the employer and employee. The employer owes the employee nothing, or very little. But for the employee, because of the refl ection of their personal measure of character, they still need to have this work ethic the employer can rely on. It feels imbalanced."

Pugh found that one group tended to orient itself with the opposition between independence and vulnerability. "If you commit too early, too much, then you are vulnerable to others, to the risk of other people leaving or betraying you.

These are people who tell themselves:

I'm independent, I'm free, I'm fl exible, I don't need anybody. They are modern creations. And the way that they talk about raising their kids, about what they owe the world and about what the world owes them is both liberatory and heartless.

"Work is an expression of yourself and has the same freedom/fl exibility to leave when it's not working for you as in the domestic scene. Sometimes, for some people, you stay with the same person for so long that you've lost yourself. But for the independence-seekers, you fi nd out who you are and express that in your work, in your love life. There's freedom there, but it feels cold to me."

Cold also in the sense that the interviewees' comments refl ect a culture in which no allowance is made for the sick, the young, the elderly, for people not performing at their best, for intimate partners in a bad patch or for needy folk. It is a culture in which there is no room for care. "[It's a society] set up perfectly for the most able among us. In one sense, you need commitment less when you're at the top of your game.

But when dependency strikes, who sticks around for that?

Why stick around for anything that is not pretty terrifi c?"

Pugh found another group of people who talked about pragmatism versus desire. They are the realists who settle for second best because they feel they will never fi nd the perfect partner or the perfect job. They're inherently pragmatic with a language of "settling". They stick around, but it isn't a joyful commitment. There's loyalty, but a mercenary one.

"Then there are what I call 'commitment heroes' - sacrifi ce versus abandonment. They go the distance like you wouldn't believe. These are people who care for special needs children or their [sick] husbands. They do it because there is no other choice for them in their worldview. They do it because to do otherwise is to live without humanity."