I RECENTLY came across a book called the Top Five Regrets Of The Dying.
Written by Australian palliative nurse Bonnie Ware, it records the thoughts and reflections of terminally ill patients she had cared for. All the men said they wished they hadn't worked so hard. "They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship," writes Ware. "Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence."
She lists plenty of other end-of-life regrets. "I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings." "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me." "I wish I had stayed in touch with friends." "I wish I had let myself be happier." But in almost every headline of all the articles that have been published about the book, the one about spending too much time working has been picked out. It's the regret that chimes with us. It remains the story that, unless we are underemployed, a parent stuck at home with the kids, hugely ambitious, or wrapped up in a vocation that gives our lives meaning, we frequently tell about our lives. It's one of our recurrent moans.
You don't need to be old to have this epiphany. People of many ages relate to it. A recent Huggies survey found that spending too much time at work was the biggest parental regret. Of course, though Ware says it was mainly men who felt this, we can infer that, since many more women have joined the workforce over the past half-century, it will be our regret too, and that we may look back, even more intensely, with regret, at the times spent working and not with family.
But before we plunge into a feminist backlash, it's worth considering whether really, in spite of our moans, we do work too much. Though often we caricature Britain as a nation of grafters, in terms of weekly hours worked, we are fairly average within Europe. The hours of a typical working week have fallen gradually over the past century, and, indeed, the current worry is that too many female employees work part-time. Meanwhile, only a third of women are employed full-time. I can think of just one woman I know who, with a small child, lives the classic male stereotype of long office hours and weeks away from home on business.
It is also easy to forget the positive side of the story: that men are spending far more time with their children. I do not imagine that my own husband, who works part-time and shares childcare with me, will have any feeling, come his later years, that he missed out on being with the kids.
But I might. In fact, from time to time, I already do. And I'm not sure whether I feel this because I genuinely miss being with them, or because in the back of my mind, in spite of everything else I tell myself, lurks the notion that it's really the woman that should look after the kids.
The new year often brings on thoughts of this sort. Have we got the work-life balance right? Is there something that we are sacrificing in the pursuit of material comforts? Do we even have an option when it comes to paying the bills?
Actually, though, the great thing about belonging to the working generations of today is that, within economic constraints, we have more choice. Men are not bound by convention to lives in the office or on the factory floor. Nor are women stuck at home, though they may have complicated feelings about how much they work.
But most of us work primarily for money. So while the notion of a life without work is a nice idea, that's all it is: a blue-sky fantasy. Dreaming about it is a bit like hoping you'll win the lottery: wistful and wishful, but rarely entirely serious.