Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

What's so Great about Work?

John Bedell

A few months ago The American Prospect published an essay by Linda Hirshman about women and work that has been angrily denounced all over the place.  Hirshman's piece is an argument in favor of work and against child care, and she castigates her female peers for sacrificing their careers to care for their families.  The piece grew out of a very clever bit of research.  Thinking that the brides who appear in the Sunday Style section of the New York Times were a good sample of the nation's most elite women, Hirshman set out to call three Sundays worth of brides eight years on to see what they were up to.

What better sample, I thought, than the brilliantly educated and accomplished brides of the "Sunday Styles," circa 1996? At marriage, they included a vice president of client communication, a gastroenterologist, a lawyer, an editor, and a marketing executive. In 2003 and 2004, I tracked them down and called them. I interviewed about 80 percent of the 41 women who announced their weddings over three Sundays in 1996. Around 40 years old, college graduates with careers: Who was more likely than they to be reaping feminism's promise of opportunity? Imagine my shock when I found almost all the brides from the first Sunday at home with their children. Statistical anomaly? Nope. Same result for the next Sunday. And the one after that. Ninety percent of the brides I found had had babies. Of the 30 with babies, five were still working full time. Twenty-five, or 85 percent, were not working full time. Of those not working full time, 10 were working part time but often a long way from their prior career paths. And half the married women with children were not working at all.

I find Hirshman's results quite striking, and while some of her critics have tried to attack the reliability of this and the other research she cites, I think her position is empirically sound:  elite American women really do take time off from their careers to raise children, and as a result fewer of them end up as top executives or partners in major law firms.  What I find peculiar about Hirshman's piece is the mystified contempt she shows toward women who choose to spend time with their children, and the worshipful attitude toward work that leaves her wondering why everyone doesn't long for a high-powered career.

Not only did the women in Hirshman's sample willingly quit their jobs to be mommies, some of them seem to have given up on the whole idea of having a career:

This isn't only about day care. Half my Times brides quit before the first baby came. In interviews, at least half of them expressed a hope never to work again. None had realistic plans to work. More importantly, when they quit, they were already alienated from their work or at least not committed to a life of work. One, a female MBA, said she could never figure out why the men at her workplace, which fired her, were so excited about making deals. "It's only money," she mused. Not surprisingly, even where employers offered them part-time work, they were not interested in taking it.

Bravo for them!  Hirshman assumes that there is something wrong with anyone who feels "alienated from work", but I tend to assume the opposite:  I think that almost everyone who becomes a top executive in a major corporation or a partner in a top law firm has severe character flaws.  A big corporation is a sort of pyramid scheme in which the bosses rake in millions while most of the employees are lucky to get 1% of the CEO's pay.  The ones who rise to the top are not the smartest or the hardest working but the ones most devoted to climbing the ladder by any means necessary.

People, it seems, like Linda Hirshman:

The best way to treat work seriously is to find the money. Money is the marker of success in a market economy; it usually accompanies power, and it enables the bearer to wield power, including within the family. Almost without exception, the brides who opted out graduated with roughly the same degrees as their husbands. Yet somewhere along the way the women made decisions in the direction of less money. Part of the problem was idealism; idealism on the career trail usually leads to volunteer work, or indentured servitude in social-service jobs, which is nice but doesn't get you to money.  . . .  Every Times groom assumed he had to succeed in business, and was really trying. By contrast, a common thread among the women I interviewed was a self-important idealism about the kinds of intellectual, prestigious, socially meaningful, politics-free jobs worth their incalculably valuable presence.

Those foolish women!  Can you believe they actually put their ideals above making money and wielding power?  

But Hirshman actually has a more complicated approach to work than simple greed.  She thinks work is better than parenting because "The family — with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks— is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government."

Full human flourishing — I like that phrase.  But is work in the "market economy" really the best way to achieve it?  Now, don't get my wrong; I have nothing against work.  I think most people need to work, and I know I do.  Without an office to go to and tasks that have to be accomplished, I would flounder.  Sometimes I even enjoy my job, and I know that if I quit I would have to find some other structured way to spend my time.  I have a strong suspicion that most people like their jobs less than I do (they certainly complain about them a lot), but even those with the toughest work lives seem to need them. Consider the wreckage that overtakes so many lottery winners, who find themselves miserable and bankrupt five years after winning the millions they thought would make them happy.  Everybody knows this, but still millions of people dream about sudden wealth.  The main topic of conversation among the commuters on my train is retirement.  We seem to exist in a love-hate relationship with our jobs; we think they make us unhappy, but without them they are miserable.

Linda Hirshman must find work much more rewarding than I do.  When women devote themselves to housework, she says, they "sacrifice their access to money, power, and honor."  She quotes Betty Friedan's exalted rhetoric of empowerment through work:

[V]acuuming the living room floor— with or without makeup — is not work that takes enough thought or energy to challenge any woman's full capacity. ... Down through the ages man has known that he was set apart from other animals by his mind's power to have an idea, a vision, and shape the future to it ... when he discovers and creates and shapes a future different from his past, he is a man, a human being.

Which is where Hirshman lost me altogether.  The women in her NY Times had not "sacrificed their access to money;" they were all still quite wealthy, thanks to their husbands' jobs.  So what if they weren't actually earning it?  Given the chance to live comfortable lives without becoming corporate drones, they took it; what's wrong with that?  As for power, I wield a lot more around my house than I do in the office.  And honor?  What does work in the "market economy" have to do with honor?  

Maybe vacuuming doesn't "challenge any woman's full capacity," but how many people use their "full capacity" at work?  I certainly don't.  My job requires a master's degree, but on the average day in the office the most difficult thing I do is not eat the donuts from the box in the kitchen.  The whole reason I set up this web site and write these essays is to keep myself intellectually alive, something that my job absolutely would not do by itself.  

Nor is using our "full capacity" the only thing Hirshman thinks we get out of work:

A good life for humans includes the classical standard of using one's capacities for speech and reason in a prudent way, the liberal requirement of having enough autonomy to direct one's own life, and the utilitarian test of doing more good than harm in the world. Measured against these time-tested standards, the expensively educated upper-class moms will be leading lesser lives.

Will they?  If there is anything that undermines my autonomy to direct my own life, it's having to be at work 40 hours a week.  I suppose my job does use my capacities for speech and reason, since the main thing I do is write reports, but I am at loss to say whether I do so in a "prudent way."  And if we are really supposed to be doing more good than harm in the world— is that self-important idealism?— we should all stay as far as possible from the market economy.   Hirshman seems particularly interested in lawyers and faults female attorneys for not working hard enough to become partners in their firms, but how many American lawyers do more good than harm?  How many CEOs?  I know the market economy somehow produces things that people need and want, and that we live longer and more interesting lives because of our great, market-generated wealth, but from my experience a market economy is essentially a racket, and the only people who really thrive in it are the ones with egos big enough to crush all their scruples.

Of course, stay-at-home motherhood is not a perfect life, either.  Many stay-at-home moms are not especially happy with their situations.  I haven't seen any research on Ivy League-educated moms like the ones Hirshman studied, but many middle-class mothers find staying at home lonely, frustrating, and boring.  Most of them return to work in some capacity after their children are in school.  But, as Hirshman says, they are not likely to go as far in their careers as their husbands.

So what?

I sense some of the same troubling mis-connections in our society that Hirshman sees, especially our widespread alienation from work.  I, too,  have noticed that when children come along, women tend to ease off from their careers, while men throw  themselves more intently into theirs.  I don't think this is because men are more wiser or more committed to using their "full capacity."  I think it is because we all need a sense of identity and purpose and, for whatever reason, most men are less attracted to the identity of stay-at-home parent than many women.  In our society, most mothers and fathers have had enough experience of work to understand that it is not a route to happiness. Faced with a future of meaningless time clocking, many women try staying at home.  The family still has to eat, so the husbands "know they have to succeed in business and really try."  Not, mind you, because they want to exercise their "full capacity" or "discover and create and shape a future", but because they don't really have any choice.

Hirshman's answer to the problem of women abandoning their careers is first, for women to insist that their husband's really do at least half the housework and child care — she suggests ambitious women marry younger, poorer men, so as to have the leverage to enforce equality in the home — and second, for women to have only one child.  Hirshman's statistics show that it is the second child that really drives women out of the workforce, and if you think getting ahead in business is the most important thing in life, there is no arguing with her logic.

I have a different take.  I think that many mothers lose their ambition, not because they lack perspective on what they are doing, but because they have a much deeper understanding of what is important to them.  Maybe nothing points out the stupidity and futility of most work like caring for a baby does.  Maybe mothers don't throw themselves into corporate or legal careers because they understand better than men that money, power, and the free market version of "honor" are not the most important things in life.  People who love work as much as Linda Hirshman does are free to throw themselves into it, but I don't see why the rest of us should.

I think that the only way to make a big difference in our relationships with our jobs would be to fundamentally change both the structure of corporations and our value system.  If a corporation were more of a shared enterprise and less of a scam to enrich the stockholders and exploit the workers, people might feel more connected to their work, and if we placed less emphasis on "access to money and power", we might do better at pursuing things that really lead to "full human flourishing."  Since that is not likely to happen any time soon, I suggest that we all follow the example of the Sunday Style brides.  We should pursue as much "idealism on the career trail" as we can afford and give as little of our lives to our jobs as we can get away with.  Work part time, refuse promotion, do what we like instead of what pays best.  That way we would be able to devote ourselves more fully to the things that really lead to "full human flourishing": friendship, family, spirituality, beauty, health, the "full use of our faculties," and having fun.

June 23, 2006

Click here to Respond

From the 
Commonplace Book

One day one of your subject comes out with a column or two detailing your rise from penury to affluence, and praising as if you were the last and noblest work of God, but unconsciously telling how exquisitely mean a man has to be in order to achieve what you have achieved.

 -- Mark Twain, "Open Letter to Com. Vanderbilt"

I had a life but my job ate it.

--bumper sticker 


Commonplace Book
On the Dead
Bulletin Board
About us

What's so great about work?
House people
Men, Women & Fools
Los Luchadores
The Sign
What I Saw at the World
Bank Protest