Last week at a dinner party with some close friends we ended the evening with coffee, dessert, and an animated conversation sparked by Ann-Marie Slaughter’s recent Atlantic article titled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” Slaughter wrote about the professional and personal conundrums women face today. Her story went viral and had more clicks to the Atlantic website than any other magazine story they ever published. Slaughter, who recently quit her high-powered job at the State Department to spend more time with her family, hit a nerve and unleashed a torrent of commentary, critique and attack for saying what most people already know – the demands of the 21st century American workplace are at odds with what’s required to have a life, let alone, a life where you can “have it all.”
Over dessert Lucy spoke of having to grow her consulting business after her husband was laid off last year – with two kids in college – and feeling the burden of being the sole breadwinner for her family: “Now I get it about the intense pressure men feel for having to keep it all going.” Nick, a real estate broker and property manager, spoke of having to be extra resourceful in a down market as he and his wife put their two kids through college. This has meant a downsized lifestyle, with his wife now working two jobs. Bruce, a Boomer generation dad with a young son, spoke of how the tables were turned on him when his wife with her corporate job and medical benefits recently left him. “I made a decision to retire early and be a stay-at-home dad. Then this happened. I’ve been out of the job market for 15 years and now have to figure out how to pay for my own health insurance, stretch my dollars and still raise my son.”
Two things strike me. First, although we experience our lives in multiple dimensions over time, when it comes to this issue in this country at this time, the tendency is to separate the personal sphere from the public sphere – as if our experience is separate from our context. Secondly, the assumptions we have about what defines “success” and how to achieve it are up for grabs in 2012. There is no straight line, no one-size-fits-all definition of what constitutes “success” or how to get there. There’s a memory of it, maybe a vague myth we have some nostalgia for. Yet there is less certainty than ever that our assumptions and our roadmaps are reality-based, that we’re even in the ballpark or that our future will be better than our past.
Despite years of research supporting society’s need for “family friendly” policies and ongoing efforts to mediate work/life balance in organizations, in the real world, work/family tensions and frustrations are felt in a visceral and personal way. Which is why our dinner party stories were personal, and the emotion was real.
Of the three couples and one divorced dad at dinner that night, everyone was self-employed and had children. Most had worked in a corporate setting at one time but had taken the jump into entrepreneurship, throwing caution to the wind. While these stories might be dismissed as dinner party anecdotes from people who should simply count their blessings and quit whining, it’s clear this is not just a woman’s issue anymore. It’s a family issue, a community issue and, on a national level, a policy issue with employees told to work harder and longer as they watch their health benefits shrink and pensions disappear. Slaughter’s piece resonates because everyone understands the essence of her story and feels the effects of this conflict, particularly single-parent families who are now on the rise. This tension, this imbalance, has generated an unsettling hum on 21st Century American lives.
So, what to do? Admit that until we move beyond the policy impasse that keeps us locked in a time warp as our global competitors respond to similar challenges, we’re on our own. Our diminishing social compact demands we design innovative ways of addressing work/life tensions – if we’re willing to use our imaginations, take some risks, and include all the stakeholders in the conversation.
What then do I tell my three 20-something children as they embark on their own futures? Take ownership of your life – both personally and professionally. Be intentional, be a critical thinker, be open, know your values and your worth, and never be afraid to walk away. Don’t settle. Be part of something bigger than yourself. Define success on your own terms, not on someone else’s assumptions of what success is. Be savvy about the world as it is, but be willing to imagine and fight for a world as you think it should be.
The late writer Nora Ephron was more eloquent in her 1996 commencement speech to the young women graduates of Wellesley College, her alma mater:
“What I’m saying is don’t delude yourself that the powerful cultural values that wrecked the lives of so many of my classmates have vanished from the earth. Don’t be fooled. There is still a glass ceiling. Don’t let the number of women in the workforce trick you. Don’t underestimate how much antagonism there is toward women and how many people wish we could turn the clock back … Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim … Make a little trouble out there … So what are you going to do? Everything, is my guess. It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess.”
Now that’s an idea worth going viral.