The “Opt-Out Generation,” Mothers, Fathers, Work and Family

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Most of us don’t want to opt-out of a rewarding, successful career. Most of us don’t want to opt-out of being a present, involved parent. Hopefully our generation can find a more balanced, integrated path.

A screencap of the recent NYTimes Magazine cover story
A screencap of the recent NYTimes Magazine cover story

The NYTimes Sunday Magazine’s fascinating cover story, “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In” by Judith Warner, paints a complex picture of the dynamics of work and family. While it focuses on high-earning women who gave up their careers to be stay-at-home moms, it has very interesting things to say about how men’s and women’s progress towards work-family balance are inextricably tied.

Opting Out

Warner’s article revisits Lisa Belkin’s “Opt-Out Generation” cover story from 2003. The 2003 article was based on interviews with several well-educated women who left lucrative and powerful careers to become stay-at-home moms. These moms were estactic with their choice of eschewing career for full-time-very-very-very-hands-on-Type-A motherhood (I highly recommend reading both articles).

In the current piece, Judith Warner re-interviewed some of the women from the original article, and found that the long-term consequences of these moms’ choices were not as rosy as they had expected.

Most of the women wanted to return to their careers, but found that the time away from work (and their networks) prevented them from finding jobs at even half their former pay and responsibilities. Many women struggled with lowered self-esteem and deep feelings of regret. Further, the power dynamics of their marriages changed, resulting in less equality and considerable strain. One tells of a bitter and bankrupting divorce.

But the clearest theme in the article is that:

… not a single woman I spoke with said she wished that she could return to her old, pre-opting-out job — no matter what price she paid for her decision to stop working. What I heard instead were some regrets for what, in an ideal world, might have been — more time with their children combined with some sort of intellectually stimulating, respectably paying, advancement-permitting part-time work — but none for the high-powered professional lives that these women had led.

Can Dads Opt Out?

To her credit, as she concludes the article, Warner turns her focus to fathers:

Men, too, are feeling the crunch of excessively demanding work. They now report more work-life stress than women do, according to the Families and Work Institute. They also may be penalized more than women if they try to accommodate their work schedules to the needs of their children, as research appearing in the June issue of The Journal of Social Issues shows. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that some husbands find themselves eyeing their wives’ lives at home with envy. “Men want to say we’re more than a paycheck,” Ted Mattox [one of the husbands in the article] told me. “There has to be something more than going to work for 50 years and dying.”

To find time for that “something more,” husbands would need to join with their wives in rejecting nighttime networking sessions and 7 a.m. meetings. They would have to convey to employers that work-life accommodations like flexible hours or job sharing aren’t just for women and that part-time jobs need to provide proportional pay and benefits. At a time when fewer families than ever can afford to live on less than two full-time salaries, achieving work-life balance may well be less a gender issue than an economic one.

Men are less likely to “opt-out” of employment for family because of financial necessity, the stigma of violating gender roles, the fear of career consequences, and personal priorities.

But a world in which men and women would not have to make such a stark choice between career advancement and time involved with family would be a far better one.

Time for Both Work and Family?

The largest obstacle to something resembling work-family balance is the persistence of traditional gender norms, which create expectations of a single male earner laser-focused on financial provision/career advancement whose wife stays home raising the kids/running the household. These norms are embedded in workplace cultures and, as a result, people are expected to be “all in” for career or “all in” for family, with precious little middle ground allowing time for both.

Even more maddening is that these expectations are at least 30 years out of date– Over 60% of US household have dual-earners, and this has been the case since the late 1970s.

If companies could get beyond these traditional gendered expectations, they could focus on results instead of on how, where and when work gets done. This flexibility would allow more parents to to navigate work, families and careers more flexibly and pursue career paths in which they wouldn’t have to settle for either-or. They could pursue a degree of success in both work and family. And that would really be progress.

Most of us don’t want to opt out of a rewarding, successful career. Most of us don’t want to opt-out of being a present, involved parent. Hopefully our generation can find a more balanced, integrated path.

Work-family is not a woman’s issue or a man’s issue- it’s a family issue- and therefore, we share the struggle and must work together for solutions. Let’s get going.

What do you think about the “Opt-out” articles? About the challenge of being “all-in”? Any experiences to share? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

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21 thoughts on “The “Opt-Out Generation,” Mothers, Fathers, Work and Family

  1. I’ve seemed to work mostly for women superiors, who have all been happy to accommodate my desire to be a more involved father. Only one male superior told me that staying home with our sick kid was my wife’s job (who worked full-time and made MORE than me). Nice to hear the conversation is happening. Let’s keep talking.

    The Cheeky Daddy

  2. I loved what you had to say. I was intrigued by the statistic you quoted regarding “dual-income” families — that the number is 60% and has been since the ’70’s — because, of course, you are right in stating that it is the workplace that must change — and, I think, for many women it has through job-sharing, flex hours, etc. So, I wonder, why hasn’t it changed for men? Is it because they haven’t demanded it? If so, why?

    • First, thank you for reading and commenting!

      Great comment. Men face two “stigma” barriers- “all in” corporate culture and traditional gender norms. For a man to avail himself of flexible work risks being judged as unmanly and unfit for future career advancement (moreso than women). Add to this the financial respnsbilities (85% of dual-parent households rely on the dad for the sole or primary income), and you can see some of the reasons why. Further, from a young age boys are taught to be the provider through full-time work, and these lessons are hard to unlearn.

      What do you think?

  3. As a mom of 2 year old, who is going through the stressful PhD program and desire to be successful in research focused academia career, I completely understand the challenge to balance work and life. Meanwhile, I feel lucky that I can be flexible to spend more time with my son and my husband also is also flexible being a freelancer.
    I don’t feel parents should opt-out their career for their life. It is tough to balance both and I never feel I have enough sleep, but as you mentioned, those women in the story are very-very-very-hands-on-type A moms. They perhaps don’t trust babysitters or daycares to take care of their children and they prefer to educate their children by their own. In that case, they choose to stay home.
    It is also true that most of work life in corporates is very demanding and many parents hardly spending time with their children for working long hours. Unfortunately, companies today are still lack of flexibility to allow us to really balance both. Perhaps the problem will only be resolved when every parent has a nursery room next to their workspace. (You know what story I’m referring to. 🙂

    • Hi Betty-
      That is a lot you have on your plate, but being a professor gives you so much more autonomy and time/place flexibility than most. The downside is that work is never fully done and if you are not careful, you could let the “to do lost” trample your family time.

      I think, given our similar family situations, you will enjoy a lot of my posts over the past year. I encourage you to check out the posts under the “My work-family story” category link on the side of the webpage, as well as my 3 articles devoted to Yahoo!

      Welcome to the blog. I hope you keep coming back.

  4. Scott – I totally agree with your take on the article. The men (and few women) who are left behind in the workforce need to be more demanding about flexibility and more proactive in changing the outdated “ideal-worker” norms. The only other option, it seems to me, is mandates from outside in the form of new legislation and with the current political climate that’s *highly* unlikely.

    • Hi Kari- Agreed. That bill in Congress is going nowhere despite being about 1/200th of the change we need.

      I am hopeful, however, as every time I write about this issue, a lot of people tell me they’ve never experienced these problems! I wish that were more universal.

  5. Great article Scott! I would suggest that the trend of men getting more comfortable in asking for, and accepting! – flexible work options is a really important part of the conversation regarding work-life balance. If I may, I will use my own family experience to illustrate. About a year ago, my husband changed from a very rigid, demanding work schedule with a daily 3 hour commute to a job that is 20 minutes from our house and allows for flexibility in his schedule. He is happier, more engaged, and able to be involved in the day to day activities with our children more frequently. I feel less overwhelmed, more like we are partners in raising our family and taking care of our home, and have been able to make some wonderful strides in my career. Finally, our children are completely secure in the knowledge that they are a priority to both of us. The more this is presented as a “family issue”, the better off our families will all be!

  6. You’ve made a lot of great points here Scott, especially that men and women shouldn’t have to choose between spending time with family and career advancement. I also feel that the flexibility that comes with more family friendly working practices is also in the interest of people who don’t have kids or family responsibilities. I’d fully admit that I’ve started to think more about work life balance since becoming a dad in April this year, but it’s an issue that I confronted before the onset of fatherhood (e.g. within the last year in response to the possibility of a routine meeting taking place either before 9am or after 6pm). I’m really glad to see that the articles you mentioned are increasingly discussing how work life balance is an issue for men as well as women, good to see it’s being seen as an increasingly universal issue.

  7. The family work debate not only ran off the rails 30 years ago, it never was on track in the first place. The problem is NOT gender roles. The problem is not, for example, the arbitrary, irrational, and counter-productive desire to “be a male breadwinner” at all costs. The problem is, as people are now beginning to realize, economic and it affects both men and women. The very same late capitalism that gives us Starbuck skinny-lattes-with-an-extra-shot, supermarkets and internet open 24/7 and medical care that can very nearly reattach a severed head also gives us the faceless workplace 24/7/365 where long planned vacations never happen because the boss called the night before, where the opportunity to work at home means one is never free of work, and where the reward for years of loyalty and extra effort is the security guard who accompanies you to your desk 10 minutes after you have been fired because the next quarterly report needs a boost and the current CEO needs a new mega-yacht for his latest trophy wife.

    We have been waiting for things to get better for going on 40 years. 40 years! Things are NOT getting better, they are getting worse.

    The problem is that what counts for success for a company today is inimical to fathers, to mothers and to children; inimical to the very notion of reproduction itself. When a soulless Benthamite utilitarianism dictates that benefits, wages and job security should disappear and the boundless demands of 24/7/365 should take their place, then there is no place for family. Surely there are still companies which are true collective enterprises, but increasingly, the rhetoric of teamwork and loyalty is cloying (not to say gagging) hypocrisy.

    It takes, in our complex society, 25 years to raise, educate and acculturate the next generation. That effort and investment is not compatible with being on call to an employer 24/7/365. Late capitalism in a global era is reverting to many of the evil practices of the 1800s.

    This is why the anthropologist Arlie Hochschild, in her 1997 book the “TIME BIND” found that the very same HR manager responsible for executing a major corporation’s family-work program was herself unable to get time off from work to accompany her own acutely ill daughter to the hospital for urgent surgery. Yet this VERY SAME corporation was awarded a prize by the Family Work Institute as “one of the top ten family-friendly corporations in America”.

    Gender roles are not really the problem. In the early industrial era, when a worker had to stand on the factory floor 12 hours a day or more, 6 days a week, gender roles were a life saver. Only by teamwork could a family survive and raise children. The mother’s position in the home was sacred. Well into the 1930s, the poor would send children out to work before they would send the mother.

    The phrase gender roles only leads to misunderstanding. The real issue is whether the dual career family is suited to the 24/7/365 workplace, or whether we need to rediscover the teamwork and loyalty inherent in the 19th century nuclear family form.

    Today, if we look beyond the word “gender”, we can see the wisdom in the “separate spheres” strategy as a way of raising children. The old nuclear family with a parent who gave all at work and one who gave all at home was an effective coping mechanism for the workplace of that time, for all its sexual stereotypes. Surely we can see, that what matters is not which parent works and which parent is at home, but it does very much matter that someone be on call and available to the children as needed 24/7.

    Today late capitalism increasingly resembles early capitalism in the ways in which it uses and discards workers (some would say worse, but that is a debate for another time). Raising a family in these circumstances may well require more in the way of 19th century teamwork, not less, as the “Opt-out Generation” demonstrates. In other words, we may have to try to recreate the intensely private sphere of the family as an antidote to the a-sexual work ethic and expectations of the corporate hive.

    It would make huge moral demands on us. We would have to reconsider our 1960s culture of individualism vs. teamwork, of self-realisation vs. sacrifice, of impulsivity vs. loyalty. We would have to abandon at last our persistent dreams of 1960s styles solutions in which someone else–be it the government or the corporation–ought to change to make us happy.

    But on the other hand, it might guarantee the existence of another generation.

    • Hello Jessica- You have given me a lot to think about here. I want to give your thoughtful and passionate comment a full reply, but I’ll need to mull it over for a while.

      thanks for reading and commenting.

    • Maybe because I’m a business school professor, but I don’t see the situation as as dire as you do. I agree, and have been very critical of the “work first” and “all in” culture of US corporations, but I don’t see quite the Benthamite dystopia that you describe.

      I think a very real problem is the decline of stable, middle-class 9-5 type jobs that allowed people to make a decent living and have sufficient non-work time to have a life. “The Time Bind” does a good job capturing a lot of this.

      Your statement here really made me think:
      “Today, if we look beyond the word “gender”, we can see the wisdom in the “separate spheres” strategy as a way of raising children. The old nuclear family with a parent who gave all at work and one who gave all at home was an effective coping mechanism for the workplace of that time, for all its sexual stereotypes. Surely we can see, that what matters is not which parent works and which parent is at home, but it does very much matter that someone be on call and available to the children as needed 24/7.”

      I don’t know if separate spheres is always the solution. Every family is different. Both my wife and I would be miserable as at-home parents. We work very hard to arrange our lives (and make many trade-offs) to allow for each of us to pursue our careers while making sure our son gets enough time with each and with both of us. I really lean on my work flexibility (which I am VERY lucy to have, although my choice of career was a conscious decision of time over money) to accommodate my wife’s more idiosyncratic schedule, and she adjust for me/us as well. For us, this works. For another family, separate spheres may be the way to go. There’s no one solution except for working it out as a couple, sharing priorities, and walking the talk.

      Your thoughts?

      • Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I agree indeed that separate spheres is not for everyone and will reply at more length as soon as I can.

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