Judith Warner on “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In:” Why isn’t this story getting all the attention that Lisa Belkin’s “Opting Out” story got a decade ago?
The 22 women I interviewed, for the most part, told me that the perils of leaving the work force were counterbalanced by the pleasures of being able to experience motherhood on their own terms. A certain number of these women — the superelite, you might say, the most well-off, with the highest-value name-brand educational credentials and powerful and well-connected social networks — found jobs easily after extended periods at home. These jobs generally paid less than their previous careers and were less prestigious. But the women found the work more interesting, socially conscious and family-friendly than their old high-powered positions.
. . . . . .
Among the women I spoke with, those who didn’t have the highest academic credentials or highest-powered social networks or who hadn’t been sufficiently “strategic” in their volunteering (fund-raising for a Manhattan private school could be a nice segue back into banking; running bake sales for the suburban swim team tended not to be a career-enhancer) or who had divorced, often struggled greatly.
When Lisa Belkin attempted to reach out this spring to the women she interviewed in 2003, she found a similar mixed picture. Many of the women declined to talk about their lives; a few would talk only if they were not identified.
Middle age is a kick in the pants. A friend of mine warned me when I turned 40 that “no one gets out of her forties” unscathed. But why, I wonder, would people “talk only if they were not identified?” I guess it’s difficult for people to go off the culturally-approved script, or to admit that they lost in the gamble they made, or to say things that might hurt their family members. It’s probably easier for the divorced women to tell it like it is, although the women who remain married to the same husbands suggest that leaving the paid workforce permanently shifted power relations in their marriages:
The husbands hadn’t turned into ogres. Their intent was not to make their wives feel lesser. But when traditional gender arrangements were put into place, there was a subtle slide into inequality. “The dynamic changes,” said Hope Adler, a former manager at the professional-services firm KPMG who spent 10 years at home full time with her four children before starting work again and choosing to take a much-lower-paying job at a smaller consulting firm that allowed her to work some of the time from home. “When I worked at KPMG we did 50/50,” she said. “We were making equal money. Then once I started staying home, I was doing laundry, dinner. . . .” But once she started working again, the expectations remained the same. “There just doesn’t seem to be a way to go back,” she said.
No $hit, Sherlock! Duhhhhh! Awesome!!! Eleventy. Are there any other cliches and verbal representations of my eyeballs rolling back in my head that I’ve overlooked so far?
I wish Warner had interviewed their daughters and sons as well to ask them about their experiences growing up and what their plans for the future might look like. The divorced woman who agreed to be photographed and interviewed explicitly lectures her 12-year old on the importance of staying in the paid workforce:
It’s a midlevel sales job, a big step down from the senior position she held before she had children and quit work. When she was first hired, in May 2011, her salary was just a fifth of what she earned at her peak. But, she said, she wasn’t complaining. All around her, she saw women her age scrambling to find work, some divorcing and losing their homes. She liked to help them, editing their résumés, polishing cover letters, pumping up tearful friends who forgot what they were worth after years without a paycheck.
After one emotional session with a friend, her 12-year-old daughter asked what all the fuss was about. O’Donnel told her: “This is the perfect reason why you need to work. You don’t have to make a million dollars. You don’t have to have a wealthy lifestyle. You just always have to be able to at least earn enough so you can support yourself.”
Before she “opted out,” O’Donnel was earning half a million dollars a year.
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