Monday, August 12, 2013

What's Worth What?

This past Sunday's New York Times Magazine featured a very revealing article about family life today, "The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In." The article looks back at a group of 22 women who a decade ago were "highly educated, very accomplished, well-paid professionals with high-earning spouses" who "made headlines for leaving the work force just when they were hitting their stride" in order to be full-time mothers. The stories are complicated and diverse - as all human stories are - but the basic leitmotif that runs through them all is how these accomplished, well-paid professionals, having abandoned their careers to be full-time mothers at home, have found themselves once again unsatisfied and looking for something more. The article examines the difficulty (especially given the changed economy, which presumably no one would have predicted a decade ago) of re-entering the work force at anything like the level they left. 
Needless to say, their story is simultaneously that of many families and few - many in that most mothers have to somehow sort out and accomodate the responsibilities of parenthood and family and the economic necessity and cultural expectation of work outside the home, few in that these particular families were in the relatively small subset of American households that could afford to make it a matter of choice. My own mother worked when I was growing up. I think she liked it, but it was also an economic necessity. Fortunately, she had my grandmother living with us to help out. Indeed, as the author acknowledes, when these well-positioned women were choosing to leave the work force, others "poor mothers who couldn't afford child care" had to do so without attracting media notice. 
This highlights what for me stands out so dramatically in this discussion. There is a lot in these stories that is reflects the different ways we value different activities and the complex ways in which our society values and devalues different activities and those who engage in them. But underlying it all is that old problem of how we as a society make those value judgments largely in terms of money. Generally speaking, we value higher earners more than lower earners, and earning an income of one's own has enormous power over our psyches, which makes the choice to forego doing that perennially problematic. Thus we read, for example, that trading in "business meeting, client dinners and commissions" resulted in growing dependency "and a sense of personal dislocation. Without a salary or an independent work identity, her self-confidence plummeted."
How society solves the problem of adequately socializing the next generation while simultaneously meeting the economic and personal-fulfillment needs of modern parents is a big question beyond the scope of this modest post. But I suspect any such solution will always be hard to come by unless and until we can more successfully incorporate other considerations besides income - and on an at least equal par with income - in evaluating one's fundamental life choices.

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