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How many of our career decisions are dictated by the shiny objects?  You know the ones we’re talking about:  the title, the status, and most of all, the fat paycheck.

Okay, they’re not really shiny and they’re not even objects, but you get the point.  We’re constantly on the chase, even when we know it sucks.  Which leads me to wonder how often we’re deterred from following our passions or finding our purpose because we’re too busy running after one of those conventional measures of worth.

How else would we keep score, right?  And money buys us happiness, after all — er, doesn’t it?

Brace yourself.  It does, but only up to a certain point.  Which ultimately, for the undecided among us, is good news.   According to a new study authored by Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate, the cut-off point is a household income of $75,000.  Up to that point, individuals in the study reported greater emotional well-being,  a scientific measure of happiness, with greater income.  But above and beyond that magic 75K?  Doesn’t makes us any happier.

Not one bit.

According to a New York Times story on the study:

It’s not so much that money buys you happiness but that lack of money buys you misery, said Daniel Kahneman, a professor emeritus of psychology at Princeton and one of the authors of the study. “The lack of money,” he said, “no longer hurts you after $75,000.”

Where you live and the cost of living there has only a small influence on that number, he added. (That may be a revelation to some Manhattanites.)

The study, which analyzed Gallup data of 450,000 randomly selected Americans, did find that one’s “life evaluation” — a self-assessment of one’s life — continued rising well above $75,000. But this is not the same as experiencing day-to-day happiness.

“Many people want to make a lot of money, but the benefits of having a high income are ambiguous,” said Professor Kahneman, who is also a Nobel laureate in economics. When you are wealthy you are able to buy more pleasures, he said, but a recent study suggests that wealthier people “seem to be less able to savor the small things in life.”

Interesting, that.  And  reassuring, too, especially if it’s our hearts we want to follow when we choose a career. Which leads back to one of the themes in our book, and one we’ve discussed here:   that inner scold that constantly nags that the only way to be all we can be is to stick with Mr. Safe Path.  What we like about this study is that it gives us a nudge, permission even, to follow our passion, rather than the paycheck, when it comes to deciding what to do with our lives.  Back to the Times story:

…Understandably, the recession is causing more people to place the financial rewards of a career first, said Nicholas Lore, founder of the Rockport Institute, a career coaching firm, and author of “The Pathfinder.”

But this could backfire as people who initially pursue a field because of the salary realize that the work is unsatisfying. Mr. Lore has recently coached a lawyer who decided to forgo his high pay in favor of teaching law, an investment banker who decided to switch to a green energy company and a dentist who decided to become a schoolteacher.

It all depends on priorities, Mr. Lore said. Some people are willing to make lifestyle changes because the intrinsic rewards of following a passion or making a difference are more important than a high salary in an unenjoyable career, he said.

In the end, people should pursue what they’re interested in, said Daniel H. Pink, author of “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” Looking at lists of careers with the highest salaries tends to be a fool’s game, he said.

“It’s very hard to game the system, in the sense that situations and conditions change so quickly that a field that is hot today might be only lukewarm in 5 or 10 years,” he said. “It might even be nonexistent.”

Let’s say you see that accountants are getting decent salaries directly out of college, he said, but you don’t really like accounting. “Chances are you’re not going to be very good at accounting,” and your salary will reflect that, he said. “Generally, people flourish when they’re doing something they like and what they’re good at.”

Of course, 75 grand is nothing to sneeze at, especially if you’re only a few years out of college.  But what’s reassuring about studies like these is the fact that, if it’s happiness we’re after, there is indeed a finish line.  Sure, the Joneses might pass us by, but if we’re out there doing something we love, we may lose the race, but we certainly will have won the last laugh.

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Back when Harvard Business School’s class of 2010 started grad school, those best-and-brightest had no reason to expect that their high-flying dreams might crash along with a tanking economy.   Which may be why they asked HBS buisness administration professor Clay Christensen to deliver a commencement address that focused on his strategies for measuring a life.  Not in terms of business success, but regarding their personal lives.  His point?  Find meaning in your life. All else follows.

Thanks to a friend of a friend’s (and probably his friend’s) Facebook feed, you can read the full-text of his talk here.  Here’s the Cliff Notes version:

My class at HBS is structured to help my students understand what good management theory is and how it is built. To that backbone I attach different models or theories that help students think about the various dimensions of a general manager’s job in stimulating innovation and growth. In each session we look at one company through the lenses of those theories—using them to explain how the company got into its situation and to examine what managerial actions will yield the needed results.

On the last day of class, I ask my students to turn those theoretical lenses on themselves, to find cogent answers to three questions: First, how can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career? Second, how can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness? Third, how can I be sure I’ll stay out of jail? Though the last question sounds lighthearted, it’s not. Two of the 32 people in my Rhodes scholar class spent time in jail. Jeff Skilling of Enron fame was a classmate of mine at HBS. These were good guys—but something in their lives sent them off in the wrong direction.

He goes on to enumerate his strats for success, applying five business principles to life itself.   They are:

Create a strategy for your life:

I promise my students that if they take the time to figure out their life purpose, they’ll look back on it as the most important thing they discovered at HBS. If they don’t figure it out, they will just sail off without a rudder and get buffeted in the very rough seas of life. Clarity about their purpose will trump knowledge of activity-based costing, balanced scorecards, core competence, disruptive innovation, the four Ps, and the five forces.

Allocate your resources:

If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find this predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification. If you look at personal lives through that lens, you’ll see the same stunning and sobering pattern: people allocating fewer and fewer resources to the things they would have once said mattered most.

Create a culture:

If you want your kids to have strong self-esteem and confidence that they can solve hard problems, those qualities won’t magically materialize in high school. You have to design them into your family’s culture—and you have to think about this very early on. Like employees, children build self-esteem by doing things that are hard and learning what works.

Avoid the marginal costs mistakes:

The lesson I learned from this is that it’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time. If you give in to “just this once,” based on a marginal cost analysis, as some of my former classmates have done, you’ll regret where you end up Remember the importance of humility;

Choose the right yardstick:

I think that’s the way it will work for us all. Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people. This is my final recommendation: Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.

Finally, when you click on the full text of his remarks, which were published in the Harvard Business Review Magazine, you’ll find some comments, probably from alums, who are presumably smart folks who have stayed out of jail.  I especially liked this one comment on purpose from someone I never heard of but probably should have:

I’m sure that people who can find a purpose for their lives early in their careers might be happy but I’m not convinced that it is all that easy to do. It sounds like trying to decide whether you like a certain kind of food before you have tasted it. I think one’s purpose is something that has to be discovered over time, through experience. I find that regular reflection over many years increases my self awareness and my sense of purpose but I don’t believe it is something I could have decided in my university days. Also, I think it is possible for one’s purpose to evolve and change over time. I think that the best we can do is to expose ourselves to multiple experiences and reflect regularly on what they mean for our purpose.

Which, in a way, reiterates much of what we’ve talked about in this space.  Finding purpose:  it’s trial, it’s error, it’s being willing to take a risk.  And — checking back on that humility business — being willing to make a mistake.  And learn from it.

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Today is Equal Pay Day: and while the name implies equality, the meaning itself is its precise opposite. Working women of the world, brace yourselves, and prepare to be pissed: today marks the day that your salary catches up to your male counterpart’s… from last year. That’s right, as compared to the dude in the next cube, since January 1, 2010, you, sister, have been working for free.

Yes, despite the fact that–I’ll reiterate–it is 2010, despite the fact that the first bill President Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which extends the time employees have to file discrimination suits, despite the breadwinning Alpha Wives appearing in trend pieces hither and yon, despite the fact that the Equal Pay Act was enacted oh, some 47 years ago, the fact remains: on average, women earn 77 cents to a man’s dollar. (Even less for women of color.)

Here’s some more fuel for the fire, from a piece from yesterday’s Morning Edition on NPR:

Economists say part of the gap is because women are more likely to take time off work for child care, and an even bigger part is because of “occupational segregation”: Women tend to work disproportionately in lower-paying fields….

But even when you control for occupation and a host of other variables, economists still find an unexplained gender gap of anywhere from around a nickel to a dime or more on the dollar. [Emphasis mine.]

Yep, those convenient, fall-back excuses citing time off for kids or lower-paying career tracks are handily debunked by Ilene Lang, with the women’s research group Catalyst:

‘From their very first job after getting their MBA degree, women made less money than men,’ Lang says. ‘On average, they were paid $4,600 less.’

Very first job? MBA? I think that settles the time-off-for-kids/lesser-paid-career-track thing. Of course, the truly ugly thing about a stat like that is that, not only does it persist, it inevitably gets worse over time. Every time you change jobs and are asked for a salary history, you’re at an increased disadvantage–and coupled with this gender-based pay discrimination disparity, well–that disparity is going to do nothing but get worse. And that’s how it is that you’ve been playing financial catch-up for THE PAST THREE AND A HALF MONTHS.

But wait! There’s more:

Catalyst’s findings held even when those studied had no children. For Lang, this says that decades-old stereotypes persist.

‘There are assumptions that women don’t care about money, which is crazy!’ Lang says. ‘There are assumptions that women will always have men who will take care of them, that women will get married, have children and drop out of the labor force. All those assumptions are just not true.’

Of course they’re not. And yet, even if they were true–even if women didn’t care about money at all, and every one of us had a man to take care of us and the intention to stop working once we had children–well, would that in any way justify the inequities? I myself, as you may have guessed, think not.

How best to address the issue? Well, asking for more money is a start. A big one, and one in which many agree women might need a lesson. We don’t want to be rude, pushy, or assertive, but we don’t want to be broke, or the underpaid schmuck on the payroll either, now do we?

But, as with a lot of things, focusing only on the individual leaves a little too much unaddressed. There’s a bill pending in the Senate now, The Paycheck Fairness Act, which would make it easier to prove gender bias, increase penalties, and nix the hush-hushness that exists around salaries in an organization. In an open letter, Ms. Ledbetter herself writes:

Without the Paycheck Fairness Act, women will continue to be silenced in the workplace, just like I was–prohibited from talking about wages with coworkers without the fear of being fired. This forced silence keeps many women from discovering pay discrimination in the first place…

Now I know that some people will say that with times as tough as they are, we can’t afford to worry about pay discrimination now. But I’m here to tell you that this recession makes pay equity even more important. With women now making up half of the workforce, more and more families are dependent upon a woman’s paycheck to make ends meet.

So, happy Equal Pay Day! …and apologies for the rant, but I think you’ll agree it was warranted. If you’re inspired to take action, rather than taking it out on Dude-in-the-next-Cube, there’s a link to email your Senator here. And, I dare suggest that you do it while you’re on the clock: more than likely, your boss owes you.

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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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Apparently, Gen X has become the forgotten child of the stalled economic engine, stuck between the Baby Boom and Gen Y.

According to recent research by the Pew Research Center, slightly over half of middle aged workers say they are planning to delay their retirement. You can blame it on the recession and tanking IRAs. But what it means for Gen Xers is that there will be fewer places at the head of the table. And thanks to do-it-cheaper Gen Y’s, very few new seats at the foot. Women may be in the biggest pickle of all.

According to an Associated Press story, those workers who came of age with the Brady Bunch are experiencing new levels of workplace angst:

They’re antsy and edgy, tired of waiting for promotion opportunities at work as their elders put off retirement. A good number of them are just waiting for the economy to pick up so they can hop to the next job, find something more fulfilling and get what they think they deserve. Oh, and they want work-life balance, too.

Sounds like Gen Y, the so-called “entitlement generation,” right?

Not necessarily, say people who track the generations. In these hard times, they’re also hearing strong rumblings of discontent from Generation X. They’re the 32- to 44-year-olds who are wedged between baby boomers and their children, often feeling like forgotten middle siblings — and increasingly restless at work as a result.

It becomes even more complicated for Gen-X women, often navigating unfamliar turf when it comes to the workplace, who have to scramble for any place at the table, as we’ve noted here :

Sure, we women do school well. University structures, especially, support the way we learn and succeed. Overachievers? High expectations? Duly noted and rewarded. But once we get to the workplace? Different kind of rules.

Let’s face it. We missed the socialization. From ancient times, men have been raised to know their job is to slay the dragons, and that they will be alone in doing it. American mythology, too, teaches men that their role is to go, seek and conquer. For generations, men’s roles have been predetermined, and unquestioned: They provide. And workplace — and social — structures have evolved to support the model.

For women, though, relatively new to this world of work, roles are still in flux. We never learned to slay the dragon — we were the pretty princesses waiting back there in the castle — and often, we’re a little confused by the messy nature of reality as opposed to the comfortable fit of school. And so we’re flummoxed. Overwhelmed. We’re feeling our way. Where do we fit in? How do we fit in? Should we fit in?

Then, there’s this: Gen X women are often the ones struggling mightily with work-life issues, figuring out how to balance career and family:

… many women are in a place where they have young children or have begun to think about starting a family. Suddenly, career choice becomes a matter of careful and excruciating calculation: Women raised to be masters of the universe –but still seeking the flexibility to raise their kids – are pulled in opposite directions: Meaningful career? Meaningful family life? Choices become crucial: how will we find that niche that will allow us to find satisfaction on both ends? What if we don’t? Maybe we came up expecting to achieve the male model of success; now we realize it’s impossible. Or we’re agonized and guilty because, with all this grand, amorphous opportunity, we find we don’t want that model of success anymore.

Finally, we’ve pointed out that, when it comes to family, these very same women are often judged in ways that their brothers are not:

Let’s also acknowledge that one of the most significant cons of having children might be the impact on a woman’s career; moms with young children are often passed over for promotions, while childless women of childbearing age are often passed over as well, on the grounds that they’ll likely have children soon. Despite the fact that fathers’ roles have begun to change as they’ve become more involved in child-rearing, work-life balance is still considered a women’s issue. And yet. A recent study by Lancaster University prof Dr. Caroline Gatrell found that some employers see their female employees who don’t want children as wanting in some “essential humanity,” and view them as “cold, odd and somehow emotionally deficient in an almost dangerous way that leads to them being excluded from promotions that would place them in charge of others.”

No wonder the discontent is growing: Promotion? Unlikely. Jump ship? Gotta compete with the new kids, who are cheaper to hire, and more tech savvy anyhow.

On the other hand, the AP story suggests all is not lost for the X-ers — so long as they are willing to do a little reinvention — and pimp out their years of experience for newbie wages:

Jon Anne Willow, co-publisher of ThirdCoastDigest.com, an online arts and culture site in Milwaukee, is among employers who’ve recently been able to hire more experienced candidates for jobs traditionally filled by 20somethings.

They’re hungry to work, she says. And as she sees it, that gives her fellow Gen Xers and the baby boomers she’s hired a distinct advantage over a lot of the Gen Yers she’s come across.

“When the dust settles, they’ll be exactly as they were before and we’ll just have to sift through them and take the ones that actually get it and hope the rest find employment in fast food,” she quips.

Swell. Should you stay? Should you go? Call it a Gen X sandwich, with a hefty dollop of indecision on the side.

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We’ve all seen the headlines: college students are increasingly entertaining the idea of moving back in with mom and dad. According to the U.S. Census in 2008, 5 million Americans aged 25 to 35 are living with their parents. A CollegeGrad.com survey found that:

Among 2009 U.S. college graduates, 80 percent moved back home with their parents after graduation, up from 77 percent in 2008, 73 percent in 2007, and 67 percent in 2006.

And no one’s disputing the spreadsheet-sanctioned benefits of doing so: the job market sucks; the ‘rents will likely hook you up with free food and cable. The economic reality can appear to be a vast expanse of No Choices At All. But consider this, from the press release announcing those survey results on collegegrad.com:

According to the CollegeGrad.com poll, nearly 70 percent of recent grads did not have jobs lined up when they graduated. The job market is certainly competitive, but Ogunwole believes there’s an additional dynamic getting in the way of some graduates’ employment: unreasonable expectations.

“Many recent graduates are turning down good job offers, holding out for better jobs and salaries in the belief that a college degree entitles them to more than entry level,” says Ogunwole. “In today’s job market, that’s just not realistic.”

Undone by great expectations?

But I think, sometimes, there’s even more to it. And a piece from yesterday on Time.com provides an extreme (this 40-something “boomerang” girl’s husband left her for a man he met on Gay.com; she crashed her car; her parents are Mennonite) example of what I’m talking about.

A little background:

When Rhoda Janzen went away to college, she was determined to leave her past behind. But unlike the average independence-minded freshman, Janzen was Mennonite–a member of a small, strict Christian denomination with only 110,000 members in the U.S. She went on to earn a Ph.D. from UCLA and became an English professor. But in 2006, at age 43, a personal crisis sent her back to her Mennonite roots in Fresno, Calif.

Janzen has written a book about the experience, called Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, and spoke with TIME reporter Andrea Sachs about the experience.

Sachs: So what was it like when you first went back?

Janzen: I had expected to sleep in, hole up out of self-pity, but my mother was so busy and cheerful that I didn’t have time for any of that. The very first morning, when I was still jet-lagged, she stuck her head into my old bedroom and said, “You want to help me make pie-by-the-yard? I picked up a big bag of Granny Smiths!” I found it comforting to snap back into old patterns, with my mom presiding over the kitchen in her safari apron. Trailing one’s 70 year-old parents around town is an excellent and under-discussed cure for heartbreak.

Granted, that is an extreme example. But I think she hits on something pretty universal: there’s a certain level of comfort in a life where choices are simply trumped by routine. And I think that’s a dirty little secret lurking behind some of the numbers that make up this trend: the big wide world can be scary–it’s vast, unfamiliar, and uncharted. Making your own way in the world is always hard, but picking which way to go can be even harder.

When we’re students, we play like we’re adults, but our options don’t really amount to much more than multiple choice. Soc 101 or Anthro 64? Two roommates or four? Keg or cans? We could plot our answers on a ScanTron. Then, one day, we’re handed a piece of paper and sent on our way–into the wild bluebook yonder. And nothing’s scarier than an empty Blue Book. But sometimes, in lieu of an outline, the familiar taste of mom’s apple pie can make a fine substitute.

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A few years back, I was teaching a journalism class to a bunch of seniors some two weeks before graduation. On this particular day, half the class straggled in late, all of the latecomers looking as shell-shocked as if they had just been slammed in the face by a toxic dose of reality. Turns out, they had — in the form of some sort of exit-interview at the financial aid office. The topic of conversation: How much a month, repayable for the next, oh, 20 years?

Quickly morphing into mom mode, I tried to spread some hope — if only so we could get on with class. “Hey,” I said. “I’m just going to tell you the same thing your parents would: never trade your passion for a paycheck.” Stunned silence. Then hoots — and I mean that literally — of laughter. Finally, one kid spoke up: “My mother would never say that…”

All of which spurred me to write an op-ed for the Christian Science Monitor, questioning where the dreams of childhood go to die.  Here’s what I wrote then:

…I remember my oldest child’s “graduation” from kindergarten. She and her classmates, sporting construction-paper mortarboards and armed with an unsinkable sense of possibility and wonder, stood on tiptoe behind a microphone and told their adoring parents, videocams rolling, what they wanted to be when they grew up. There were ballerinas and ballplayers. Artists and writers. Firemen. Rock stars. Zookeepers.But what experience tells me is that, after four years of college, most of those kids will be doing none of the above. If history holds, they’ll head for a cubicle, doing something safe, risk free, but with a good starting salary.

Over the years, I’ve had conversations with students who tell me they not only have no time to pursue their passion – be it music or art or dance – but have never actually had the time to discover one. They mourn that fact. So do I.

What saddens me is that many students come to college to get a job, rather than an education. For them, the university is not so much a place where they experience the joy of discovery, but simply a means to yet one more end. To be sure, these are good kids: reliable, responsible, hard-working, and eager to please. Still, they are always worried about what comes next, and the grades it takes to get there. Rarely do they ever get too close to the edge, staying instead on their safe and proscribed five-year path.

Flash forward several years, throw in a hefty recession, and I still see kids, mainly bright young women, who stick with what’s safe, most often of necessity, despite the fact that they remain, well, undecided.  But I’m starting to see glimmers of something else, too: students who actually use words like passion and purpose to define their future. University classes that lead students on a process of discovery. And the stories of the young women themselves.

There’s the new grad who, when a high-paying job offer dissolved last year after the corporate heavyweight went bankrupt, decided to follow her heart  into the dance studio, where she hopes to learn how she can eventually use her talent for choreography to empower at-risk kids through dance. Or the well-paid young professional who took a leave of absence from her job to work 17 hour days to run a field office for the Obama campaign. Back home, months later, a family friend questioned her about the experience. She listed her tasks: cold-calling volunteers, knocking on strangers’ doors, entering data late into the night, daily conference calls. “Did you like calling volunteers?” the friend asked. “Well, no,” she answered. “What about knocking on doors?” the friend continued. “God, no!” she howled, “that was even worse!” But overall? “I loved every minute of it.”

Well, of course she did. Call it a sense of purpose, which may, as Shannon suggested on Monday, be one antidote for the choice conundrum : a sense that, when choices rear their scary heads, it’s okay to zig instead of zag if that’s where your heart leads.

Sure, there are any number of issues here that might make Mr. Safe Path the only feasible alternative: Loans to pay off. Living expenses (And surely, there is true nobility in working to put food on the table.) An inflexible workplace that flashes in neon: All or Nothing. (Full disclosure: back in the day when my kids were young, I chose to work as a freelance journalist. I was taken less seriously by full-time reporters because I worked at home, while a lot of the stay-at-home moms I knew either found me uppity – or kicked me out of carpools. Well, there’s also my driving. Whatever…) There’s even the uncomfortable fact that for some of us, no matter how much we yearn to zig, we’re just not good enough.

But still.

According to a recent piece in the Washington Post, a report by the non-profit Center for Women’s Business found that “women-owned businesses generate about $3 trillion in revenue and employ 16 percent of the workforce, making them significant players in the national economy…”

Call me rash, but I have to think that a lot of those women who started those businesses had the guts — and the drive — to follow their hearts. Which leads me back to this sense of purpose business: It’s something to take seriously, yeah? And maybe yet another way in which the architects of the change — not to mention all those square pegs — might save us all.

I’ll bet you have your own stories. Share.

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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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But is that necessarily a bad thing? Not completely.

In a piece in last week’s New York Times, Alex Williams explored what college kids and newly minted graduates might be doing this recessionary summer. The answer? For a great many of them, moving back home with mom and pop. He writes:

The well-paying summer jobs that in previous years seemed like a birthright have grown scarce, and pre-professional internships are disappearing as companies cut back across the board. Recession-strapped parents don’t always have the means or will to bankroll starter apartments or art tours of Tuscany.

So many college students and recent graduates are heading to where they least expected: back home, and facing an unfamiliar prospect: downtime, maybe too much of it. To a high-achieving generation whose schedules were once crammed with extracurricular activities meant to propel them into college, it feels like an empty summer — eerie, and a bit scary.

And yet. For a generation that’s been pushed, prodded,”given trophies just for showing up” and told they could do anything so long as they worked hard enough, the staycation in their high school bedroom might in fact have an upside. For one thing, it’s a safe lesson that, no matter how hard you work, life sometimes intervenes. And, hidden at the end of Williams’ story, is another glimpse of a silver lining:

In the short term, the lost summer of 2009 might actually be a blessing, some psychologists said, especially because members of this generation have lived their lives like track stars trying to run a marathon at the pace of a 100-meter dash — their parents typically waiting at every turn with a stopwatch.

“Parents have really put a lot of pressure on the kids — everything has been organized, they’re all taking A.P. courses, then summer hits and they’re going to learning camps,” said Peter A. Spevak, a psychologist in Rockville, Md. Now, he said, with opportunities for achievement at a minimum this summer, “there is something to be said about sitting out on a warm evening and looking at the stars — they need more of this contemplation and self-evaluation.”

In other words, time off the treadmill. Where passions often have time to percolate, and looking at choices becomes less stressful, and more thoughtful.

One of my students recently told me he will be spending his post grad summer living in his parents’ basement — and, since the job prospects are slim and none, taking the time to do some serious work on his writing and his music.

He’s looking forward to it.

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Not to be all Pollyanna, but is it possible that the current economic reality might offer an escape from the whole passion-v-paycheck debate Barbara addressed in yesterday’s post? Or that maybe, just maybe, when it looks like your choices are diminished, in a strange way, they start to multiply? I came across this piece yesterday, which tells the tale of a Brit who lost his accountant job, a job he took because “I wanted stability and I saw it as a recession-proof job.” Said Brit approached the void left by his new, unemployed status as an opportunity–one he seized in pursuit of his longtime passion: stand-up comedy. It made me think of this quote Life Coach Martha Beck dropped in a recent interview:

I am not saying you have to realize all your dreams when your back is against the wall, but when you have nothing to lose, know that this is the best time for setting your sights toward genuine happiness. You may not travel the path you want to arrive at your ultimate goals, but you must, must, must have the direction clear and the destination pinpointed or you will simply wander in the direction that circumstances take you.

So. Whaddaya think? Is this kind of idea a lovely fantasy but (like oh so many lovely fantasies), far too dangerous to actually consider? Or does a part of you feel that, since the guaranteed paycheck jobs don’t really exist anymore–that, with a limit on what choices are currently available–you have a newfound freedom to pursue that pie-in-the-sky dream, the unrealistic one that gets your soul all a-flutter? Or maybe the current doom-and-gloom has helped you make a tentative peace with your job–the very same one you used to describe as soul-sucking. Maybe you’ve lost your job and decided now’s the time to go back to school, like you’ve kinda always wanted… Or maybe you’ve lost your job, and think I should take this post and shove it. Either way, I’m curious: what do you think?

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