In every major city, people with and without children are quietly cobbling together more flexible schedules. We can all learn from their success.
Several months ago a good friend recounted a conversation with her 6-year-old son. He was excitedly describing a cartoon that concluded "with a cat hopping onto a motorcycle and racing off with his girlfriend." Sensing a parenting opportunity, she asked if he knew what a "girlfriend" was. He didn't. She explained the concept of boyfriends and girlfriends. He paused and then declared, "Well, when I grow up I'm going to be a [sic] single." "How do you know?" she asked, intrigued. "I'll be too busy playing in the World Cup to have a girlfriend or a boyfriend!" he said.
We marveled that this little boy already sensed the conflicts adults face as they contemplate the shape of their lives, and could intuit that extreme commitment requires extreme sacrifice. (As someone who's recently researched the "single condition," I particularly appreciated his locution of "a single.") This anecdote came to mind as I read Anne-Marie Slaughter's honest Atlantic story, one of the most important points of which, to my eye, is that seeking out a more balanced life isn't just a women's issue, it's a human issue, and we'd all -- men and women -- be a lot better off if we addressed (or at least legislated) the issue that way.
For my purposes, I'm going to extend "all" to include the unmarried and childless. In May, the Wall Street Journal's Sue Shellenbarger wrote about single people who are actively addressing the work-life conflict by "opting out" of their fast-track careers. "As more young adults delay marriage into their 30s while career demands intensify, many increasingly feel overloaded," she reports. "Many set high expectations for themselves, dating, staying in shape, doing volunteer work, and helping family -- while still getting stellar performance reviews." She cites a McKinsey & Co. study in which mothers and non-mothers alike said they wanted to leave their jobs "to gain more control over their lives."
In my adult life so far, I've logged roughly 12 years in full-time office jobs, so I know of what these women speak. Offices (often) suck. You get home way too late, you don't exercise enough, you blow too much money on mediocre lunch options, you die a slow death in each long, pointless meeting. Still, I chose that route; I wanted the income that would make a comfortable-ish life in New York City possible. As Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote in the Washington Post on Tuesday, it's worth keeping that overall privilege in mind -- especially when so many women work for so much less in the way of benefits that the very idea of fretting over choosing how much to work must seem like a faraway dream.
However, the reverse side of recognizing -- as Slaughter does herself -- that this is an article written from a vantage of unusual privilege is that it allows us to talk about how we still haven't codified the best work-family practices even for the elites in American society. That's a sobering reality. And, given how much elites like to talk about themselves (or observe their competitors), this lack of a language for success in work-family balance probably also means that we've been slow to learn from the success stories that can be observed even in the realms of the elite.