Activism and life-work balance

Workers of Pepmaco share their situation to visitors in the picketline. (Photo courtesy of Kabataan Partylist-Laguna)

We are swamped with reminders about the need to slow down, refocus our priorities, and reflect on how we make good use of our time so that we live life to the fullest while improving our work productivity. We are told to aspire for a life-work balance to feel good about ourselves, enhance our opportunities, and contribute something back in our communities. Practice holistic living. Cultivate inner peace. Provide for self-care.

These are all ideal goals and sensible maxims that can empower individuals. We become more mature by constantly evaluating our choices. We make better decisions through introspection.

However, self-improvement can turn into a fetter when individuals become too enamored with how they look in the mirror and thereby weaken or even lose their sense of social solidarity. Its potential is eroded if framed to undermine collective bonds in society.

This type of individualism became popular not by accident. It got rebranded as a modern mantra during the methodical destruction of traditional ties in workplaces. The decline of unions and associations forced individuals to fend for themselves and treat everybody as competitors. This coincided with the massive reversal of social welfare programs which slashed subsidies for basic support services.

Instead of challenging the macro policies that condemned all aspects of living under the sway of free-market forces, individuals were told to be more resilient and responsible. Precarity became the reality for an increasing number of working families but the blame is pinned primarily on the failure of individuals to acquire new skills in the 21st century.

Despite the market crashes, bank bailouts, and bursting of property bubbles, what was still made imperative was the adjustment in the attitude of individuals instead of recalibrating the political economy.

Neoliberalism has been discredited several times yet it still reigns supreme as an economic doctrine. It got a friendly boost from the tech and automation sectors which disrupted local economies and rendered many jobs redundant.

Life became harder, especially for minimum wage earners. Jobs offered less protection and security. The role of welfare agencies was greatly diminished.

Despite the economy tipping on the verge of collapse, workers continue to survive on subsistence while desperately trying to become less expendable. They are expected to report for work and fulfill their duties as if the daily challenges they face can be easily ignored. Many are toiling under dire conditions and the solution offered to uplift the plight of laborers is not pay hikes or a comprehensive benefits package but a so-called life-work balance. It essentially transfers the responsibility of sustaining work productivity from capitalists to workers.

Because of this, a concept with real potential to empower individuals is again hijacked by the drive to earn more profits at the expense of labor. The very political act of probing the situation of the self in relation to the wider community is delinked from issues of power, equity, and justice.

Caring for the self should not be the end goal. What’s the purpose of doing this? Para kanino?

Activism can provide useful insight and practical guidance on how to better grasp the link between the personal and the broader set of social relationships. It can sharpen our understanding of the dynamics of changing the self in relation to social transformation.

It is more than just a matter of activism enriching our knowledge about how society works. Rather, it instills a liberating idea about how even ordinary individuals are capable of building a new world based on a more progressive set of values. And it is in the process of making the impossible possible, when individuals meet and work with other dreamers and changemakers, that they realize their full potential as human beings. The self breaking free from restrictions imposed by tradition; the individual immersed in the collective fight for good.

The personal-turned-political; the political learning to be personal. Smashing forced demarcations that sustain the oppressive structures of power. Activism as antidote to the seductive appeal of selfish individualism.

Improving the self is deliberately made part of the political struggle. Often, it is in thick of battle that an activist learns to find the proper balance in life and work. No time is wasted wallowing in prolonged self-doubt once the political priorities are identified. Personal difficulties are resolved with help from fellow activists. Perhaps some problems will continue to persist but the activist self does not allow them to limit what he or she can do in life, especially if the political goal is already set.

The self finds meaning through work with others. Work is made relevant if done for a greater cause. In other words, life-work balance is best achieved through activism. (

Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. He is the chairperson of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan Metro Manila. Email:

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