Cambridge, Massachusetts. -- The phrase began to reappear around the conference again and again: The Good Life.
It was a soft set of words that rose unexpectedly out of a serious gathering at Radcliffe College under a hard-edged mathematical title: "The New Economic Equation: Redefining the Economy, the Workplace and the Family."
In the past, when a conference was held on work and family, on the economy and the society, the family was usually defined as a problem. It was cast as the burden that made it hard for workers, especially women, to be productive on the job.
When women held such gatherings, the issue was framed in terms of equality and success. Flextime, family leave, child care, and elder care -- the package of "family concerns" -- were brought to the table in discussions about how to get the men in charge to listen and respond to workers or, to put it more accurately, working mothers.
There were hints of change in the working conference that brought 40 men and women together last week from business, government and academia to begin a year-long initiative at Radcliffe's new Public Policy Institute. In a few places like this one, the issues of work and family are being consciously enlarged into a more complex discussion of how the pieces of society should fit together.
Today the conflict between economic life and the rest of life has put our whole country into overload. Pressured by the new technology and a changing world economy, the old forms of coping in American life are stressed like an aging metal structure to the breaking point. The early indicators of collapse are the fractures in family life and children's lives.
Even at this conference of people with relatively powerful jobs and some with that form of job security known as tenure, there were stories exchanged about 70-hour work weeks, family stress, the recurring sense that something in life was awry or missing. With some bemusement, Radcliffe Public Policy Institute director Paula Rayman reported on three child-care crises just among the participants.
"In politics," as Labor Secretary Robert Reich reminded the group, "the discourse is set by the dominant question." Indeed, no one ever ran a political campaign on the theme: "It's the Good Life, Stupid." But again and again, there was evidence of how the questions can make all the difference.
As Robert Boruff, the vice president of the Saturn Corporation, said, the debate that built the new automobile company wasn't about what kind of car to make. It was, he said, "What kind of company do you want to work for?" A success story grew from the answer to that question.
So too, Lotte Bailyn of MIT's Sloan School talked about the work she is doing with companies to find new policies that are good for both people and the workplace. The dominant question as she phrases it? "How would you change work in order to make your lives more livable?"
There is something radical in just these inquiries. After all, for the most part concerns about family, about community, about the good life, are set outside the margins when we talk about the economy.
We are supposed to be grateful for any job that hasn't been eliminated by technology or shipped to Thailand. We are told to be competitive and productive. The only thing we are to expect of government is less. As for family problems? They have been conveniently cast as a failure of our moral values.
Any conversation, like the one just beginning at Radcliffe, takes place against an inauspicious background. The landscape now is dominated by conservative contracts with the family, by cuts in government spending, by the daily anxieties.
Meanwhile, the good life is as hard to define as it is to lobby for. Freud listed two ingredients: work and love. In the '90s, we would add: the time for both. Add to that, a sense of security, connection, shared enterprise and the moral ease of living in a fair society. We aren't doing well by these measures.
But any "new economic equation" worth its math has to include family well-being as well as productivity, a sense of community as well as technology. When the additions and subtractions and long divisions of any "new economic equation" are being devised, the overriding issue must be the kind of life we want.
Sometimes, after all, the soft questions are the hardest.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.