Sunday, July 1, 2012

Have it Your Way

Over a kid-free dinner in the Berkshires on Friday night (halfway between French Woods and Star Island), Worldwide asked for my thoughts on the cover story from this month’s Atlantic about why women can’t have it all. I had read a couple of posts reacting to the author’s argument that the deck is still stacked against women achieving an optimum work/life balance, but had not actually read the article.

I bought a copy for the flight home yesterday, and I had mentally sketched out this post, only to find that an article from this morning’s New York Times pre-empted a number of the points that I wanted to make:

There is always a price to pay for achievement, or for trimming your sails — to some degree, for some periods of time — at work. There will always be someone who will work harder and advance faster and higher, and often that someone will be a man. It will feel unfair, even with the knowledge that there are incalculable benefits to having a rich family life that the most driven will never fully savor.
In my view, the key to the issue is in the first sentence. No-one of any gender can have it all--particularly at the rarefied levels sought by the author, shuttling between a tenured job at Princeton and a post in Hillary Clinton’s office. Every decision at every level involves a trade off of some kind: marriage means commitment to one person; having children means a relinquishing of time and freedom; and career choice carries with it both a ceding of a certain amount of leisure time and the acceptance of a level of financial compensation that will either allow or forbid a set of lifestyle choices. And moreover, at every level, the competition means that most people will not realize their dreams, even if they sacrifice everything else. Such is the stuff dreams are made of.

I think everyone aspires to have it all, to realize their vision for a perfect future. My own fuzzy perception of this in law school--a choice I made--based on a vague concept of an interesting, well-paying vocation--involved a high-status job at a large law firm, a smart and beautiful wife, a large house in a cool city and abundant leisure time. Everyone, I think has a similarly personal utopian vision, but these visions inevitably run into the reality of competition and trade-offs. A good job at a large law firm in a cool city requires hard work in law school and a commitment of time that interferes with leisure activity. Plus, in a competitive world, there will always be people whose trade-offs make them better suited for specific aspects of your utopia--the people who choose to not have (or to ignore) children; to live at the office; or to sacrifice their retirement savings for positional goods. And some of them are smarter than you as well.

So the basic problem with “having it all” is twofold: firstly, every choice involves some sacrifice, and second, most people will not achieve the goals they set for themselves as young people. That’s not a dismissal of the value of ambition, but it is argument for a constant recalibration of the possible.

I do not mean to dismiss the article; I think the title is a little unfair, and it might have gone down a little easier had it been “It is difficult, especially for women, to achieve the perfect work/life balance.” I also think that the author does not spend sufficient time on the key factor in the equation: the division of labor among domestic partners. Perhaps this is because doing so would shut some women out of the discussion (and make it more complicated), but the fact is that the role of a domestic partner as breadwinner/enabler/caregiver/ is the most important contributor to the equilibrium. Both Ms. Slaughter and Ms. Chira reference “supportive husbands” and, as someone whose spouse is abroad for extended periods each year, I understand this role. I also understand that men are only slowly beginning to appreciate the need to take on increased responsibility at home in return for supporting their spouse’s career, and for the financial opportunity that a working partner provides. I think that the workplace is gradually evolving to facilitate the advancement of women, and the increased domestic commitment of men. Changes like working remotely and the “results only work environment” are helping our society to break free of the clock and attendance-based world of yesteryear. But marginal improvements and long term trends are small recompense to people facing the reality of the here and now.

I do believe that, in a country as prosperous as ours, we need to do more to support a healthy work/life balance, and to support a variety of approaches to what we once called our “jobs.” In the always connected, hyper-competitive, quarterly reporting world of today, I suspect that organizations that do more to support their employees’ lives outside the workplace will ultimately be more successful. But that’s a difficult principle to embrace in the face of the reality of fierce competition to make a sale or meet a deadline.

That said, the main reason that no-one can have it all is that such a construction is impossible by definition. The only path toward fulfilment is in making the trade-offs that optimize our own happiness, and in savoring the joy of the things we have--whether they be job satisfaction, family or personal achievement--rather than bemoaning those we have chosen to sacrifice in the pursuit of happiness.

One of the reasons that business and life advice is always somewhat unsatisfying is that it invariably comes back to a couple of fundamental truths familiar to everyone. It’s important to keep these in mind as we storm into a never-ending series of quotidian battles with assorted trolls. A supportive person can help us retain perspective on what is truly important in our lives, and to remember that the key to having it all lies in being happy with the choices we’ve made and optimistic about the possibilities ahead.

Cold comfort for my generation, but the never-boring Penelope Trunk says that women who want high-powered careers should marry older men and get pregnant in their mid-twenties. I wonder if I'll pass that advice on to the Gs.

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