Saturday, June 23, 2012

The People Who Want It All Are Hurting America

On Wednesday night, I read Anne-Marie Slaugher's thought-provoking and much-discussed Atlantic article, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." I've been ruminating over it since, and figured I'd share my scattered thoughts here. 

Slaughter is of course correct that women still can't have it all. But no one can—at least not if you define "having it all" to mean achieving something more than tenure and deanship at Princeton without making significant personal-life sacrifices. Because it was only after Slaughter took a sabbatical from Princeton to work as a high-ranking State Department official that she had her epiphany that not every vector in life can be maximized simultaneously.

Slaughter makes clear that she is writing about only "highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices." And what are their "choices"? Princeton or Yale? Nanny or au pair? Kidding aside, the choice is this: "Should I acknowledge that I have achieved enough, career-wise, and turn my attention to a more satisfactory personal life? Or should I attempt to absolutely maximize my career achievement, and hope against hope that somehow this will not involve significant sacrifices in my personal life?" 

When you spell it out, the answer seems rather obvious—and I think it is obvious to most women. The only people who get this question wrong are a small subset of robotic super-acheivers, almost all of whom are men. In other words, more men are career super-acheivers because only a buffoon would think that it is wise to make the sacrifices necessary to absolutely maximize career achievement—and almost all buffoons are men.

So men can't have it all either—they're just much more likely to think they can. The buffoon-robot-super-achievers end up going-for-broke, "achieve" the insane (literally) success they were seeking, and refuse to admit they've made a shambles of their life in the process. Since the human brain is essentially a machine that rationalizes whatever decisions we have made ("I have no regrets"), people rarely admit these kinds of fundamental errors in judgment ("Everything happens for a reason"). But from the outside, it's easy to see that most people who devote their lives to achieving maximum career achievement are absolutely wasting their lives. 

I espouse a mode of life that one writer has memorably called "the medium chill." The underlying insight is that maximizing achievement (or maximizing anything, really) is unwise, and not the route to the good life. I think most people (especially most women) actually agree. Most people (including most men) are unwilling to maximize career achievement at the expense of family life. The problem is that a majority of the buffoons who are willing to do so are men, so we end up being ruled mostly by men. Perhaps it would be better if more of these buffoons were women, but I tend to doubt it.

So how do we fix this? How do we change the world so that reasonable people are enticed to aspire to positions of leadership and high achievement? Slaughter argues that women have been able to achieve rather equal success at the highest levels of academia because of the flexible hours that an academic career permits, and points out that most other prestigious or powerful careers lack this feature. That's a great point, and it both explains the gender gap at the top of many professions and suggests a solution: flexibility and fewer hours. 

Especially fewer hours. Slaughter talks about "time macho," which is essentially the idea that he (always he, obviously) who puts in the most hours wins.  This is really the root of most of our problems. Even Slaughter sort of brags about how, as dean, she would tell student groups that she couldn't meet after 6:30 (because she had to go home to have dinner with her family) but that she was happy to come back after 8:00. That's still macho, Ms. Slaughter. The work day should just end at some reasonable point. If there's a job that requires someone to work 12 hours a day seven days a week, it doesn't take a mathematician to realize that that's actually two jobs. Two people should be doing it, not one.

The problem is that the buffoons are willing to work 200% of the hours for 175% of the pay. They're greedy—they want all that money. And they're arrogant—they think only they are capable of doing the work. Even though they are (supposedly) doing much of it at night after working all day, which is clearly not a recipe for good brain-based work. In fact, there's a real contradiction there: if these jobs are so mentally taxing that only the select few have the brain power to do them, then they are also too taxing for someone to do effectively for more than eight hours a day. On the other hand, if what really distinguishes these jobs is that currently they require a commitment to working very long hours, then it should not be a problem to simply split the job in half and have two people do it. Maybe we lose some efficiency, but probably not, and the other gains (increased employment, increased productivity) should more than offset the losses.

Culture is the problem. For example, in some professions people who try to work normal hours are thought by some people to be unserious about their work or lacking ambition. My response: "fuck 'em." When I worked at a big law firm, that was my advice to new associates wondering how to achieve work-life balance.  If you want a home life, you just have to go home at 6:00. If forces at the firm are pressuring you to stay later, you just have to accept that one of the consequences of having a life may be that you have to work at a different firm. Because if you don't, you end up sacrificing your personal life to keep working at a job you hate. The way to change the culture is for people, especially men, to stop making the idiotic choices that result in them sacrificing their personal lives in order to succeed at jobs they hate—choices that create a culture in which only the most insane can ultimately succeed. This really shouldn't be too hard. But it is!


  1. Interesting ... the crux of your post that men (& not women) will take on jobs which lead to high achievement while sacrificing personal time is essential to this discussion, and I think it's critical that men lead the discussion about this. I think you simplify the motivations that lead men to this behavior though. It's not that they are "buffoons," or especially greedy or arrogant. Historically, men have been expected to sacrifice for their careers, a sacrifice which is supposed to allow them "to take care of their families". This idea is built into our idea of maleness.

    Conversely, of course women have been expected to sacrifice for their families as well, but through becoming their children's direct care-givers which has meant giving up work in the outside world. That idea of femininity is also intrinsic to our culture. More recently, feminism has managed to disrupt the institutionalization of that notion, so that women have the opportunity to work at the same levels as men. We haven't adjusted psychologically to this new reality though, so that women who are away from their children feel discomfort and even failure.

    We need to expand our ideas about maleness and femininity, so that men and women can feel comfortable taking on many roles vis-a-vis family in our society, both as providers and caregivers. Then, we need to demand that our institutions - workplaces, laws, etc. - support them.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, anonymous. You're surely right that I've simplified things.

    The behavior that strikes me as buffoonish is that the actions that (mostly) men take supposedly as a sacrifice "to take care of their families" often seem more likely to end up destroying their families. So it just seems ... dumb. Your explanation for this behavior—that it is driven by cultural expectations and mores, etc—is probably more satisfying, and certainly more charitable, than my description of it. But when you see it up close, e.g., with the men having moved on to second marriages, it's hard to be so charitable.

    Anyhow, your broad point that there are new psychological realities that both men and women haven't yet adjusted to is a great one.


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