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Archive for the ‘job-changing’ Category

The other day, I got a ping from a former student who sent a link to a recent piece she’d read over on Forbes.com.  “Have you seen this?” she wrote.  “It reminds me of Undecided!”

The topic? Burn-out.  Apparently, it’s rampant among high achieving millennial women. At least that’s the skinny according to a piece by Forbes contributor Larissa Faw who writes that “a growing number of young professional women who seem to ‘have it all’ are burning out at work before they reach 30.”

She had me at have it all.  Faw doesn’t necessarily back up the burn-out rate with numbers, but she does offer some compelling stats that link these “early career flameouts” with women’s declining presence on the upper reaches of the corporate ladder:

 Today, 53% of corporate entry-level jobs are held by women, a percentage that drops to 37% for mid-management roles and 26% for vice presidents and senior managers, according to McKinsey research. Men are twice as likely as women to advance at each career transition stage

Interesting, but not surprising.  What struck me, though – and what perhaps made that former student think of Undecided — was Faw’s rationale that one of the reasons for the lopsided stats is that, whereas women burnout early and jump ship, men stick around.  Why?  Because our brothers know how to relax.  From the story:

 It seems relaxation is something Millennial women have never experienced. One reason that women are burning out early in their careers is that they have simply reached their breaking point after spending their childhoods developing well-rounded resumes. “These women worked like crazy in school, and in college, and then they get into the workforce and they are exhausted,” says Melanie Shreffler of the youth marketing blog Ypulse.

Bingo.

Now, we can’t say whether this inability to take five logically leads to burn-out.  But what we can say, based on the reporting we did for the book, is that this treadmill mentality is very real, especially among young women raised with the message that “you can have it all.”  These are the girls who started building their resumes in grade school, who lived by their day planners and five-year plans, and who crumbled at the sight of a B-plus.

I remember seeing this one little girl, in grade school plaid, sitting in Starbucks, drinking this giant latte, and working w/her tutor on some kind of Princeton Review workbook for acing the high school entrance exam.  No one even questioned the caffeine.  And check this: one study from the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that college educated parents were spending more time with their kids than ever before.  Cool, right? But what the researchers discovered was the root of all this extra time was the perceived scarcity of college spots. The title of the study? The rug rat race.  No joke.  Another piece on CNN a while back featured hard-driving moms who had either quit their jobs or taken a leave to navigate their kids thru the college admission process.

Whew. I’m verging on burn-out just writing this stuff.  Call it the curse of great expectations: The problem with the treadmill mentality is that it leads to a lot of future thinking — a bad habit that’s hard to break — or what psychologists call the arrival fallacy:  If I make this team, get into that college,  score that fat job – then I’ll be happy.

Or not.  Because where the treadmill ends is in the real world.  And though we’ve come a long way, baby, that world has not quite caught up.  All of which has lead to a lot of growing pains as we – and especially our Millennial sisters – learn to navigate the trade-offs without much in the way of a roadmap.

Thing is, for this newest generation of twenty (or thirty) somethings and the rest of us who’ve been bred on perfection and raised with the mantra that the sky’s our limit, well, with everything on the menu, could it be that, no matter what the routine, once something becomes routine, we’re doomed to be just not that into it anymore? No matter the pluses, are we unable to see anything but the minuses? This isn’t quite perfect, so why should I stick around? Once we’re confronted with reality’s non-perfection, do we begin to imagine what we’re not doing?  Hello, carrot.  Meet stick.

Bottom line, we’re in it together, trying to figure this stuff out.  As Teri Thompson, chief marketing officer and vice president of marketing and media at Purdue, tells Forbes:

 “We’re all a work in progress; new inputs—from new friends to new places visited—mean we’re constantly changing in our thoughts of what’s desired, what’s possible, what’s fun, what we want to do.”

Forbes might call it burnout.  We call it finding our way.  By the way, that former student?  She’s a millennial woman herself.  A high achiever who is currently in the throes of her law school applications.

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A perfectly reasonable question, right? It’s social shorthand for “who are you?” a convenient fall-back in the face of awkward silence or prolonged mingling; polite, simple, safe chit-chat. Um, right?

Well, consider: A couple of years ago, I reconnected with an old friend who’d since moved to Alaska. I asked him what it was like up there, what had prompted such a move. And he said–and I quote, “Californians are so shallow.”

I’m used to “smug,” along with some mention of organic vegetables, Masters degrees, and hybrid cars, but shallow? Not so much. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“The first thing anyone ever asks is ‘What do you do?'” he said.

And with that, he kinda shut me up (no small feat). It’s an interesting–and somewhat unusual–perspective, given how much of our time is poured into doing whatever it is we do, and how much of our identity is derived from what we do… but if we allow ourselves to see his point–that defining ourselves in terms of what’s on our business card is, indeed, shallow–what might we learn?

I was reminded of this conversation when reading a piece in this month’s Marie Claire magazine: In “Is your career ruining your credibility?” Sarah Z. Wexler gets into the issue of being defined–and judged–on the basis of what we do. Here’s a taste:

Former financial analyst Stacy Bromberg, 35, used to hold her own with the big-shot lawyers and bankers in her family Then she accepted a lucrative offer to be a senior VP of strategy for a major cosmetics company. ‘Instantly, I became the punch line at every family get-together,’ she recalls. ‘When I chimed in to a politcal discussion, my uncle asked how I found time to read the headlines when I was busy testing out lipsticks. Now, whenever I talk to him, I end up overcompensating, spending the whole conversation dropping fancy words, mentioning my assistant and whatnot, just so he and everyone else in the family knows that they’re dealing with a somebody. But I often sit up at night wondering if I’ll ever be taken seriously again.’

We all know women are judged by how they dress, talk, and act on the job. It’s only reasonable, then, that we’d also be scrutinized for the actual careers we choose. Though women represent nearly half the workforce and occupy positions of power unthinkable even a decade ago, many of us have put off marriage and families to get there. Some women complain that that’s resulted in tacit, insidious pressure to secure the kinds of jobs that justify all those trade-offs.

And, of course, the cruel irony is that women get it from both ends: If we take a low-powered job, we’re perceived as weak, unenlightened, whatever. But if we’re a serious player on the fast track, people are just as likely to judge: don’t wanna be too ambitious. For a woman, a job isn’t just a job. It’s a comment on who she is–in a way that it isn’t for a man.

Leaving that aside, again we’re reminded of the fact that women are relatively new to the workplace (it’s only been a generation since the demise of want-ads segregated by gender!), and coming into it armed with the message that You can do anything! (which, internally, tends to translate to: I better do something really, really good!)–all of which leaves us shouldering the weight of some serious expectations. Of course we want to prove we took that opportunity and milked it for all its worth! Of course we want an impressive answer to the question, “So, What do you do?”

But really, why? Often, the most impressive-sounding jobs are not so fabulous in real life. Take, for example, Alex, a Hollywood producer we profile in Undecided: “Dude. I’m doing what I wanted to do out of college, and now I’m over it. Sometimes what we originally think is glamorous turns out to be the opposite. After ten years in this industry, I’m ready for a big change. Ideally, owning my own business and never having to worry about a director not enjoying his sandwich.”

Like children transfixed by bright and shiny objects, we want the title, the money, the prestige… Even when we get what we’re after only to find it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, those bright and shiny objects are hard to give up–because, as much as we likely would rather not admit it, part of that ever-elusive picture-perfect life to which we aspire is the picture itself. How it looks. And yet, as Lori Gottlieb told us,

‘Something that looks really enticing from the outside is usually sort of culturally informed… very superficial.’ So why, we asked, do we get so hung up on them? And in a Helloooooo kind of tone, she told us what we already knew: ‘The objective things are so alluring.’

Alluring, yes. And often it’s only after some trial and error that we find what’s right for us–that what first looked so alluring is in fact, not what we’re passionate about–or even enjoy. But maybe a good indication that we’re on the right track will be when someone asks us “So hey, what do you do?” and we no longer care how our answer sounds.

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So I confess.  I was ambushed by the green-eyed Facebook monster over the Memorial Day weekend.  I spent most of mine sitting at the dining table, gazing longingly out at our backyard, grading papers. Welcome to my life at the end of the quarter.

So you can guess that all those posts and pix from FB friends at picnics and barbeques and baseball games, spending time with friends and family, left me just a little bit deflated.  Lusting after that greener grass.   Because surely, all those happy faces and cheery posts mean those folks were doing it better, enjoying more life, and having more fun.  Right?

And then (okay, procrastination is  good for the soul), I ran into a blog post that, in a small way, reminded me that the thing that we daydream about when we wish we were doing something else, that thing that from the outside looks like heaven here on earth — usually isn’t.

Case in point.  The glamorous life of a travel writer.  If you love to travel and, you know, you write for a living (or think you should) well, what could be better?  Sigh.  If only. But, as Pam (AKA “Nerd’s Eye View) writes in a post entitled “Why I’m not a full-time Travel Writer”, once you’re on the inside, you realize that the reality is quite different from the fantasy.  She’s a travel writer, who pays the bills as a technical writer, and she provides a dose of reality as to what that dream career is really like.  The whole post is great, but here’s the nut:

Next month is the Travelblog Exchange (TBEX), a conference for travel bloggers. I had dearly wanted there to be some kind of reality check discussion, not because I want to depress hopeful writers, but because I wanted to blow away some of that fiction around what it really means to be a travel writer by profession. X1, who writes for a prestigious publication and travels a lot has told me, “Yeah, it’s great. I love the work. But I’m poor. I live in a tiny apartment.” X2 admitted to winning big in the technology lottery and living off those funds. X3 has a full time day job and a spouse with a full time day job. X4 admits to churning out fluffy, uninteresting stories for custom publication markets.

The folks I know who are full time freelance travel writers are in a continuous cycle of pitch, write, edit, research, travel, repeat. It’s a lot of work, and it’s not clear to me that money is that good. I know a few staffers, too, and you know what? They’re just like your friends with day jobs. They have meetings and process and office politics and frustrations. Sure, they get to go some places, but so does the outside sales guy, and he doesn’t have to see his story eviscerated before it goes to press.

What I wanted at TBEX was a session that presented the reality of writing as a profession, not as a quixotic pursuit or a weekend hobby or gap year boondoggle. Admittedly, I wanted this for myself as much as anything. Because I struggle with what I do (what is that, anyways?) all the time. I wanted to hear people who I think of as grown up, professional travel writers speak honestly about how they juggle all this stuff, how they manage to make it work. I’m always grateful for time with writers who will share, honestly, how they get by — a recent conversation revealed a writer’s need to sell multiple stories about one destination with every trip in order to make the travel pay off. “I can’t go just because I want to. I need to sell that story five times over to have it be worth my while.”

There are those who have made the jump to an itinerant lifestyle, bugging out to places where the low pay is enough, effectively outsourcing this work to places where 30 dollars goes much further than it does in my chosen home. That’s not something I’m willing to do. And keep in mind some basic math — even were I to make 1000/month blogging, I could not live on my annual income. There are also some who manage to generate a decent income, but they have a highly targeted market, they have a sophisticated understanding of what the web likes, they are backing up all their words with the sale of a product or service that people want to buy. Having none of those things, I don’t expect to live off the first person scribblings of this blog.

You should also read the comments to this post that, at this point, number 101. All of which is to say that, when we’re toiling away in a cubicle (or the dining room table) dreaming of that killer job that involves only a backpack and a laptop — we’re probably blinded by the rose-colored glasses.

The travel writing gig — it’s just a small example.  But there are other dreams out there just like them.  (Insert yours) Which is absolutely not to say we shouldn’t follow our dreams.  (Ack.  Double negative.  Sorry!)  Or that we shouldn’t do what we can to make them happen.  Not at all.

The lesson is this.   Life is complicated.  Messy.  Rarely is it perfect.  There are always trade-offs.  And that grass?  Usually not as green as it looks from the other side of the fence.

And oh, by the way.  Memorial Day?  Just about the time my second red pen ran out of ink, got an invite for a last minute barbeque at a friend’s house.  It was goddamn delicious.  In every possible way.

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Hi, I’m Shannon, and I’m an advice-column-aholic. From Elle‘s “Auntie” E. Jean to Salon’s Cary Tennis, theirs are my go-to pages. I typically get a couple Q-and-A’s from Auntie Eeee down while still standing by the mailbox, and, no matter the top headlines of the day, “Since You Asked” is my first click on Salon’s newsletter. So, recently, there was one that really made me think — and while I have thought of the nut of his advice often since, I couldn’t quite recall what the questioner’s issue was. To leave something  – a job, a town, a relationship? honestly, no clue – or not to leave, to stay or to go. The eternal question, no? Anyway, Tennis generally allows for very long, very detailed questions. And, true to form, this one was lengthy, filled with details that set the scene, laid out the pros, the cons, the players, the action. So his verdict would be informed.

And you know what his answer was? Dispense with the pro/con list; stop worrying over whether this is the “right” thing to do. Whatever it is you’re doing, just do it, and do it well. Do it the best you can.

Kind of incredible. I daresay revolutionary. I mean, imagine that: if all of the details were irrelevant, and the only thing that mattered was that you do whatever it is you do well. To hell with whether it’s the right thing or the wrong thing.

In the writing of our book (now available for pre-order on Amazon — yipeee!), we’ve talked to women agonizing over everything: from the huge to the trivial. And one of the major commonalities is this: whatever the decision they face, they’re worried they’ll choose wrong. So many factors to consider! So many cases to be made, so many pros, so many cons! So many worries over figuring out what’s right. It’s human, of course. We are blessed with the power of rational thought. But is it also a curse? Do we get stuck in the spinning? And do we keep ourselves trapped there? After all, it’s easier to worry over figuring out what the Right decision is than it is to just decide to do something, isn’t it? So here’s a challenge: to factor Whether It’s Right out of the equation entirely, and just do something. And instead, focus your energy on doing that something well.

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A couple of weeks ago, we wrote about a NYT mag piece that put forth Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s cause to define “Emerging Adulthood” as its own, unique life stage. And this week, the magazine’s entire Letters section was devoted to responses to that piece. And with good reason: when it comes to the differences between today’s, um, emerging adults, and their 20-something counterparts of generations past, there’s a lot to think about.

One suggests that the world we live in today was shaped by rule-breaking boomers, so it’s logical that those of us who’ve come of age in that world might feel more comfortable going our own way:

As I read Robin Marantz Henig’s discussion of 20-somethings, I was struck by the sense that the new life stage she was ascribing to this generation could actually be something that adults of all ages experience today: feeling unstable, struggling with ferocious competition for jobs, wondering if our relationships and finances can go the distance. I consider it progress that every young person doesn’t feel the need to complete school, leave home, marry and have a child by a certain deadline. There is no ‘one size fits all’ adulthood. Let’s not forget it was the boomers who created the 50 percent divorce rate, who initiated the corporate-casual workplace, who made 60 the new 40. Today’s 20-somethings just want what we all want: the opportunity to live life on our own terms and in our own time frame.

Another suggests that, well, it’s the economy, stupid. Companies don’t take care of their workers for life like they once did–and 20-somethings who’ve watched their parents change professional directions are understandably commitment-shy:

In recent decades, corporate downsizing, the offshore outsourcing of both blue-collar and professional jobs and the loss of corporate loyalty to (and pensions for) committed employees and retirees have rendered quaint the notion of a settled, lifelong career. Today’s 20-somethings have observed their parents not only job-shifting but also career-shifting, many numbers of times over, to say nothing of the job insecurity in the current recession. This situation can make career commitments seem daunting.

This one suggests that “Emerging Adulthood” is a life stage well spent, that getting to know oneself before committing to anything–or anyone–else has long been an important–and recognized–stage:

I fear [Henig] gave short shrift to Erik Erikson’s work on psychosocial development past childhood. She describes the ‘intimacy versus isolation’ stage, a task to be negotiated by the young adult, solely in terms of whether to commit to a lifelong relationship. Erikson meant much more in his focus on the challenge of young adulthood than simply finding a lifelong mate. His view of intimacy included what at one point he referred to as ‘intimacy with oneself, one’s inner resources, the range of one’s excitements and commitments.’ In his view, a person without a sense of self could not maturely commit to another person. It may well be that this lack of closeness with oneself–inner resources, excitements and commitments–might be a key to what we are seeing as the reluctance of the young adult.

But my personal favorite was this one, which suggests that the willingness to dispense with the shoulds and take your time before making commitments is actually pretty damn admirable:

Like many baby boomers, I took the college, career, marriage and children route with barely a detour or reflection. I love my life, and I have few regrets, but to follow a path so mandated by external role pressures and internal expectations, underlain by anxiety and fear of change, perhaps cheapens the essence of ‘choice.’ In contrast, many adults in their 20s are making thoughtful life choices that exemplify flexibility, creativity and courage. Instead of struggling to determine whether this is because of social context or whether it represents a new life stage, perhaps we should simply applaud those among us who best exemplify the American ideals of liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

What do you think?

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… and according to a recent New York Times piece (that, as fate would have it, ran on Friday, a big birthday for yours truly; big enough to officially bump me from one age range box to the next, in fact) neither do you. Surely by now you’ve heard the phrase “extended adolescence”. And whether you take pride or offense in the suggestion that you and Peter Pan have much in common, the fact is, according to Frank F. Furstenberg, who leads the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood:

people between 20 and 34 are taking longer to finish their educations, establish themselves in careers, marry, have children, and become financially independent.

I’m guessing you knew that already. And this too:

“A new period of life is emerging in which young people are no longer adolescents but not yet adults,” Mr. Furstenberg said.

National surveys reveal that an overwhelming majority of Americans, including younger adults, agree that between 20 and 22, people should be finished with school, working and living on their own. But in practice many people in their 20s and early 30s have not yet reached these traditional milestones.

Marriage and parenthood — once seen as prerequisites for adulthood — are now viewed more as lifestyle choices.

The stretched-out walk to independence is rooted in social and economic shifts that started in the 1970s, including a change from a manufacturing to a service-based economy that sent many more people to college, and the women’s movement, which opened up educational and professional opportunities.

Women account for more than half of college students and nearly half of the work force, which in turn has delayed motherhood and marriage.

You get the drift. And I’m guessing you don’t need the New York Times to spell it out for you. Because, more than likely, in one way or another, it is you. We live in a world of wildly expanded opportunities, an all you can eat buffet where everything looks too damn tasty to miss out on any of it. And women in particular have absorbed the message that to be at this buffet at all is a lucky opportunity — so of course we want to get our money’s worth. To try (it ALL) before we buy. It’s a great big world out there, and there’s no MapQuest to tap for directions — we have to figure out our path as we go. And we kinda want to do a little scouting around before we commit to one path, and forgo all the others.

To me, the most interesting question the article brings up is this: while financial independence is one thing, as for the rest of it — marriage, parenthood, and one single Career — is making such commitments all there is to being an adult? Is signing on to something — one thing — forever and ever the only thing that can ferry you over the threshold, out of NeverNeverLand and into GrownUpDom?

Maybe I’m just a product of my times, but I don’t think so. I tend to think of a grown up as someone who makes her own decisions and takes responsibility for where they lead her. And doesn’t expect every one to be right — and doesn’t expect that there’s a right answer to every one. Even — no, especially — if they lead her to dead ends, forcing her to back up and start all over again in the search for a truer fit, head held high over the nagging chorus of Why Doesn’t She Just Grow Ups that surrounds her. Even if her decisions never lead her to a mortgage, or a job that she’ll stay in until she retires, or a promise to stick with one partner til death does she part. Even, in fact, if they lead her out the window in her jammies, following a guy in green tights.


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Earlier this week, I got an email from Feminista author/blogger Erica Kennedy (you remember the interview I did with her back in December), asking if I’d seen this item in the UK’s Daily Mail, a trend piece about (unmarried, non-mom) women opting out of the rat race in favor of waiting tables, walking dogs, and QT with grandma, sprung from a book entitled–get this!–“30-Something And Over It: What Happens When You Wake Up One Morning And Don’t Want To Go To Work… Ever Again” by Kasey Edwards. I hadn’t yet, but once I did, my fingers got to twitchin. Why’d I feel the need to pen my own post about it? Well, consider:

‘Have you ever woken up and realised that you didn’t want to go to work?’ [Edwards] asks.

‘I don’t mean you had a big night and you’d prefer to sleep in, or it’s a nice day and you’d rather take your dog to the park instead. I’m talking about being over it.

Completely and utterly over it. Sure, you might have a gold card, but you’ve maxed it out buying things you can’t afford and that you don’t even need, trying to fill a void that just can’t be filled. You numb your discontentment every night with gin and tonics.’

Okay, this being the United States and not the United Kingdom, I’m inclined to doubt we do our numbing with gin and tonics. But still. The sentiment tends to ring true. Those fat dinners at the hottest restaurants with the open kitchens and mixologist-conceived cocktails…. Those boots… Those highlights… Those weekends away–filled with spas and syrahs and tapaaas…

Here’s a bit more from Edwards in the Daily Mail piece:

‘All through your teens and 20s you’re working towards something, and there’s this sense of delayed gratification: ‘I’ll work hard now and I’ll get a better job.’ And you get to your 30s and you go: ‘Where’s the pay-off?’ The gratification that you’ve been expecting for years doesn’t come, or when the reward comes, it’s not satisfying. I really did think: ‘Is this all there is?’

…And far from fuelling our ambition, it seems that the current economic crisis is only compounding our sense that status, success and money are a fool’s gold.

First, let’s back up. The girls from the piece? They had fat jobs. But they were busting their asses. And they saw their bosses… and didn’t want to be them. And so they up and quit, trading in their expense accounts for pooper scoopers, their time in the executive suite for time in the rec room at the retirement home. This recession? It’s global. And they’re barely covering their bills. So what made them do it?

I tend to think it’s the great expectation question all over again. And, having just written about the little-bit-marrieds, welll, I couldn’t help but see a little parallel: Are our working girl fantasies, perhaps of Melanie Griffith, scoring the corner office and the pretty new briefcase–given to her by one Harrison Ford, every bit as ridiculous as those spawned by Disney, in which the princess scores the happy ending wedding and the glass slipper–given to her by Prince What’s-his-name? Which is to say, do we find disappointment in our real lives because we’re expecting a Hollywood-style happy ending?

Actually, I don’t know if it’s as simple as that. In fact, I don’t think it is at all–I just like movies. Really, I think it’s more a generational thing–and a too many choices thing. These milestone institutions–career, marriage, mortgage–they all involve a pretty serious dose of commitment. And our generation, with everything on the menu… well, could it be that, no matter what the routine, once something becomes routine, we’re doomed to be just not that into it anymore? No matter the pluses, are we unable to see anything but the minuses? This isn’t quite perfect, so why should I stick around? Once we’re confronted with reality’s non-perfection, do we begin to imagine what we’re not doing–in the loveliest possible way, of course? Or are we categorically incapable of satisfaction–do we equate finding, even looking for, satisfaction with a certain complacency, with settling? Is that friggen grass always going to be greener, no matter which yard is ours?

Or is this non-attachment, this willingness to pass on the status-proving trappings a step on the path to enlightenment, an epiphany? You know, kinda like the one in The Devil Wears Prada, where the put-upon assistant working the job “a million girls would kill to have” up and quits to find happiness in a shabby newsroom…

And then kinda ends up with the prince?

Someone stop me. I’m doing it again.

Kennedy’s take?

Is this cool or crazy — I can’t decide. (Actually, I think these women are going to spend a year going on long walks and hanging out with Grandma then they’ll figure out what they’d rather be doing and get back to work.)

In other words, the grass will still be greener.

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Late last week, I caught up with M., a young woman–a New York transplant a couple of years into post-collegiate life–we’re profiling in the book, fresh off the heels of a major decision. As she downloaded the details, so much of what she said about her choice–to leave a great job with a major brand in the field she’d always thought she wanted to be in–rang true. Here’s a bit from M:

It was one of the hardest choices I’ve ever made because I knew in my gut that I was unhappy, but on paper it made a lot of sense for me to keep working there. I had good health insurance, I was making a good salary, I had a steady job, but I was just unhappy and to make a choice based on my feelings versus what logically made sense was really difficult.

Feelings. They’re so – well, touchy feely. Hard to quantify. They look so woefully wimpy on a list, lined up against numbers and facts and figures. Like they’re somehow less real. And yet – if happiness, satisfaction, a sense of purpose, and other, you know, feelings are what we’re after, it shouldn’t seem so outrageous to base our decisions on them. But it can — if you’ll pardon the choice of word — feel outrageous. Irresponsible. Silly. And when it comes down to the choice that looks good on paper versus the one that feels right in our heart, choosing the one that feels right over the one that’s arguably right can feel kinda wrong.

Back to M, who aggressively went on the prowl for a new gig, and was rewarded with a couple of job offers (two of which came on the same day), all of which came complete with their own sets of pros and cons. But ultimately, in analyzing the facts, she realized that what it all came down to was feelings.

It wasn’t necessarily a matter of being worried that, oh no, I have no options, I was like, okay, I have worked really hard to put options in front of myself now I have to make a choice where I just put so much effort into making sure I put before me as many avenues as possible, but then, there I was, stuck having to make a choice.  That was really difficult for me, and since I’ve been in my 20s the big choice I made was to move to New York, and since then I’ve felt like I was just making very small choices. And this was going to be my first really big, life-changing decision since then. So, it was extremely difficult and I can tell you honestly that I put a lot of grey hair on both my parents’ heads and my poor boyfriend–I can’t tell you how many times we sat there with pros and cons lists that I had him talk me through.

It’s hard to adjust to being a grown-up and realizing that the repercussions of your choices mean so much more, so I think it was really hard for [my parents] you know, they wanted to help me in the ways they always have as parents. They wanted to be like, it’s gonna be all right and we’ll take care of it for you. The thing is they just at this point had to be council, and I had to figure it out because, at the end of the day it was me that was gonna take care of me, and if I screwed up I was the one who was gonna deal with the repercussions.

It came down to the fact that I was unhappy, and I would start to think about what my life would be like in these new decisions, and just what made me feel less anxious and what made me feel happy.

M’s story hits on a bunch of things: How relatively new it is for us women to be in charge of our own lives, and the decisions that design them. And how, the reasoning skills, the objective ways we’re often taught to approach decisions, don’t–can’t–take into account what’s most important, when it comes down to what’s going to make us happy: how we really feel.

M’s tale has a happy ending: she loves her new job. The one, she says, she’d “never in a million years imagined doing.” But she does have one regret:

I regret that I didn’t take the time to really reflect earlier. I just spent so much time I think pushing away my feelings and pushing away, hey, what is it that I really want to be, because it was going to be tough, and then it took me being really unhappy at work to stop and reflect: okay, what are you gonna do with your future?

It shouldn’t take a bout of extreme unhappiness for us to give our feelings the weight they deserve, but so often it does. And it shouldn’t seem such a daunting task to confront them, either, but so often it does. And the funny thing is, maybe if we could learn how to listen to them, to trust them, to value them, they might be the one thing that can make our decisions easier. And wouldn’t that feel good?

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The other day, one of our Twitter followers sent me a link, with a “What do you think?”-type note. (Using 140 characters or less, natch.) A click landed me on Harvard Business’ blog, and a post entitled “Why Are Women So Unhappy At Work?” The piece (written by a man–just for the record) quotes the findings from an earlier post by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy. In that post, entitled “Are Your Best Female Employees a Flight Risk?” Hewlett writes:

We found that in the wake of last year’s financial crash, high-powered women were more than twice as likely as men–84% compared with 40%–to be seriously thinking jumping ship. And when the head and the heart are out the door, the rest of the body is sure to follow.

Hewlett goes on to cite examples of what various companies are doing in order to keep their ladies on board. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before the subject of passion came up:

Intel created workshops aimed squarely at retaining one of its most at-risk populations: mid-level female engineers. Exit interviews revealed that many of these talented technologists were leaving not to spend time with their family but because they no longer felt challenged by or passionate about their work. In the 21st century, talented people of both sexes often feel stymied by a traditional vertical career path that follows a straight line up a narrow ladder. Rather, they’re interested in and open to lateral moves and a variety of “work style” options, such as flex schedules and telecommuting, as long as these options are intellectually and professionally challenging and/or satisfy personal obligations.

That’s surely a part of it. Now, consider this, from Russell Bishop, via the Huffington Post, still rumbling with riffs on the Paradox of Declining Women’s Happiness study:

The implication seems to be that if you were to gain more in terms of physical world success you would naturally become happier… My theory is that over the past 40 years, as American society exited the “Father Knows Best” or “Leave it to Beaver” mentality of the 50s and 60s, we seem to have increasingly equated success and fulfillment with jobs, career advancement, position title, bank accounts, and other symbols of success. If you were one of those statistical women who took on job, career, or economic goals as your “symbols” of success, you just might have wound up sacrificing what mattered most in hopes of greener pastures at the eother end of job, career or economic goals. What if you won the race to the top: a better job, increased paycheck, more “toys” than the boys? Did you bargain for all that comes with it? Did you anticipate the sacrifices you would have to make to get there? How are those trades looking now?

An interesting take. Going back to the original post, the one our Twitter friend sent, author Sean Silverthorne writes:

Unfortunately, Hewlett doesn’t answer my burning question: Why are women more likely than men to consider jumping ship? Certainly there are career opportunity questions. If women believe they don’t have as good a chance as their male colleagues of advancing, of course they should be considering options. But a 2x factor suggests something much more deep seeded. Something about the nature of work in the modern company.

His post earned a slew of responses, citing reasons for our wandering eyes ranging from discrimination from the good old boys’ clubbers, to a need for more corporate support for work/life balance, to female “dogs in power that insist on running a place like a sorority.” No woman wants to take part in the proverbial workplace pissing contests–and even if she did, she’s not properly equipped. But this comment really made me think:

I also think there’s a fundamentally different paradigm that can exist in female-oriented workplaces and it takes us away from the whole aggressive, money and progress-oriented approach to work–it is collaborative, nurturing, fun approach which while achieving goals and earning a living isn’t centered or structured the same way–it’s like a circle not a hierarchy and goes to the heart of our culture.

Lest you think that sounds a little too kumbaya to actually work, consider these points, enumerated by Hewlett:

  • Research demonstrates that companies with significant numbers of women in management have a much higher return on investment
  • A study has shown that when work teams are split 50-50 between men and women, productivity goes up. Gender balance, the research posits, counters ‘groupthink’–the tendency of homogenous groups to staunchly defend wrong-headed ideas because everyone in the group thinks the same way
  • Another study–out of France–showed that firms in the CAC 40 (the French euivalent of the Dow Jones) with a high ration of women in top management showed better resistance to the financial crisis. The fewer female managers a company has, the greater drop in its share price since January 2008.

So, clearly it behooves everyone to keep women engaged, in the game. But if a whopping 84% of us are thinking exit strategy, what’s the answer?

I kind of think they all touched on a part of it: Hewlett pointed out the need for passion and challenge at work; Bishop noted the inevitable let-down that comes from chasing–and then catching–material things; and Silverthorne offered a tease, earning comments that allude to something deeper, something about the very way in which workplace structures are organized, a la Elizabeth Lesser’s suggestion I first wrote about here:

The conversation we need to have now is no longer about women assuming positions of leadership within the existing power structure, it’s about the power structures themselves, it’s about how to go about assuming power, how to change the structures.

But in order to change them, we’ve got to stick around.

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As in option. Or, sometimes, the lack of same.

Surely you have been tuned in to the continuing controversy as to whether the “opt-out revolution”, reported by Lisa Belkin in the New York Times Magazine back in 2003, ever really existed. In her story, Belkin reported on a group of fast-track women who’d “opted out” of their high-flying careers once they had children. Ever since, a debate has raged as to whether or not the story reflected an actual trend, backed up by numbers, or was based on anecdotal information from a select group of women and what journalists call “weasel words” — like “many” and “most”.

Just last week, the Washington Post reported on new census figures that seemed, at first glance, to debunk the so-called “mommy myth”:

A first census snapshot of married women who stay home to raise their children shows that the popular obsession with high-achieving professional mothers sidelining careers for family life is largely beside the point.

Instead, census statistics released Thursday show that stay-at-home mothers tend to be younger and less educated, with lower family incomes. They are more likely than other mothers to be Hispanic or foreign-born.

Census researchers said the new report is the first of its kind and was spurred by interest in the so-called “opt-out revolution” among well-educated women said to be leaving the workforce to care for children at home.

In other words, the reports seemed to show that the vast majority of stay-at-home moms were not those who opted out – but more likely those who were never comfortably in. So case closed, right? But hold the phone: In a post right after the numbers came out, several writers drilled down the numbers and found the snapshot to be a little more complex. WaPo blogger Brian Reid was one:

If you dig into the data, it does indeed show that, on average, stay-at-home moms are more likely to be young, foreign-born and less-educated than moms as a whole. But that’s hardly a stake in the heart of the idea that you’re seeing a lot of women with college degrees stepping out of the workforce. In fact, though college-educated moms are slightly less likely to be at-home moms, a whopping 1.8 million of the 5.6 million at-home moms have a college diploma. That’s hardly a “small population.”

Of course, the Census is interested in providing a snapshot of the current situation, not making a value judgment. I’ve taken the position that opting out of the workforce is not intrinsically bad: it’s only bad when parents are forced into it by a lack of other options. It’s clear that we’re still not living in a golden age of work flexibility: for too many moms and dads, there are only two choices:the 40+ hour week or the at-home option. I’d love to know where the numbers would go if there were ways to structure home and career with more precision.

Which goes straight to the point made by Mother Jones writer Elizabeth Gettlemann, who wonders if what these numbers really show is that whether mothers stay home with their kids or go to work in an office, the decision to opt in or opt out is one often made for them, largely by circumstances.

The report’s take-home message, that stay-at-home moms are actually younger and of lower income and education (and less white) than the opt-out theory would suggest, does less to say that other mothers aren’t making hard work/life choices and says more about the nearly 1 in 4 moms who do stay at home, that they simply don’t have options to begin with (jobs to go back to, for example), the choices that older, more established workers and women have when deciding how to support their family and career.

And keep in mind that the Census definition of stay-at-home mom is rigid and doesn’t account for all sorts of work/life sacrifice decisions women make…

In other words, maybe the numbers are not about opting in or opting out — or the resulting backlash. But, more likely, about which of us have access to the options one way or the other. And what the numbers show is not many of us do. The majority of those stay-at-home moms, as Broadsheet’s Judy Berman suggests, may never have had a choice in the first place:

If we really look at the census data, stay-at-home mothering begins to seem less like a post-feminist choice than a decision often made out of pure necessity. Not to say it’s a universally undesirable one. (The census found that 165,000 dads are doing it, too.) But the most statistically significant group of full-time moms turn out to be the women who have never reaped the benefits of white, middle-class feminism.

When all is said and done, what I wonder is why we got so caught up in these numbers in the first place. Really, who cares. As women, do we need the validation? Is this yet another tedious round of the Mommy Wars that, by now, should have been put down for a nap? Are we still caught up in judging each others’ choices? And why is it always either/or? What about freelancers or part-timers?

I have to wonder if this numbers business — and the debate itself — is nothing but a smokescreen that keeps us busy smugly sniping at each other when what we really should be doing is fighting together for flexible workplace policies, as New York Times Economix blogger David Leonhardt suggests:

So here’s a modest proposal: maybe we should stop arguing so much about whether women are staying home in greater numbers and focus instead on the policy questions. How can companies be persuaded, or pushed, to make part-time work a more serious options for both mothers and fathers? How can part-time work — or, for that matter, years spent outside the labor force — become less of a career killer? What can be done to encourage more fathers to take paternity leave? How can we create better, more comprehensive pre-school programs, so that middle-class and poor parents of 3- and 4-year-olds can feel more comfortable working full time?

Exactly. Maybe we should call it the opt-in revolution.

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