No One, Male or Female, Can Ever Really 'Opt Out'

Work is inescapable.

Twice a month, a panel of dads discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, they talk about moms leaving the workforce versus dads.

Gross: Ever since I can remember, I've wanted to opt out. Working--the kind of corporate-oriented, career-building capital-W Work that seems like the American ideal--never appealed to me. And, growing up in the recession of the early 1990s, that kind of work life seemed to be crumbling anyway. Me, I wanted to spend as much of my time traveling, eating, making new friends, maybe even one day starting a family, and I figured the work I'd get, if indeed I got any, would be lowly, menial, minimally rewarding, practically uncompensated, and freelance. But that would be fine--I expected nothing more.

What actually happened was that, as much by chance as by design, I built a freelance-writing career around precisely those subjects I wanted to fill my days with: traveling, eating, friends, family. My opting out was, weirdly, my way in. At the same time, however, my work, such as it was, was becoming more and more optional. For most of our marriage, my wife, Jean, has been the breadwinner by far, and once we had kids, my household duties, always significant, grew. I cooked for us all, I ended my workday at 5:15 p.m. to pick our daughter Sasha up from preschool, I was the one who'd stay home if Sasha was sick.

Never, however, was there a day when I could imagine chucking it all to focus solely on childcare and homemaking. That would that work? Which is why I found it so strange to read the New York Times Magazine feature on the "opt-out generation": the legion of women--mostly high-powered executives and professionals, all generally five to ten years older than me--who'd given up their careers in the late 1990s and early 2000s to focus on being wives and mothers. Now, a decade or more later, many of them are regretting their decisions and/or trying to re-enter the workforce, with varying degrees of success.

The strangeness comes not from an inability to understand their desires. Yes, work sucks. And when it sucks, you want to concentrate on the things you really do love: your husband, your kids, your house. In that sense, opting out seems utterly rational.

What seems unrealistic, however, is their belief that they could somehow escape from Work--that they could live lives apart from the System. I mean, as much as I hate that system, and as little as I expect from it, I understand that it is inescapable. To be alive in America in 2013 is to be a worker of one sort or another--a freelancer, a volunteer, DIY publishing maven, a hack screenwriter, a dog-walker, a can-collector, a social media consultant, a branding expert, a T-shirt designer. Pretend that the System doesn't apply to you, that you can step outside of it for a year or ten, and the System will let you have your fantasy and then, cruelly, crush you when you return to reality. The opt-out generation is getting crushed right now.

Why did these women think they could get away with this? Maybe it's just a generation gap: In the five to ten years between them and me (I'm 39), enough changed that I began my working life in the dawn of the Freelance Era, when careers are made not by rising through the ranks but by surfing the networks of friends and contacts and hoping you don't get pulled under. And that era has continued to blossom, especially over the past decade, to the point at which it's almost laughable to expect a traditional one-company corporate career.

Or maybe it's because I'm a man: For men, opting out of Work has never really been an option, even for those of us who, in recent years, have devoted our energies to our family lives. Stay-at-home dads blog, and consult, and do graphic design while the little ones are asleep, and not merely because we want to--because we enjoy doing well in realms outside the home--but because we've always been expected to work. We've grown up with that expectation, never imagining an alternative.

Now, if you'll excuse me, it's 8 p.m., and I'm still in my office, and I have a Website to relaunch.

Ross: The café around the corner from my apartment embodies many latter-day, gentrified, Brooklyn stereotypes. The barista, a co-owner, boasts an ample beard and a handsome collection of retro-castoff T-shirts. The music skews sensitive-boy-indie, with some hip hop, '80s-pop, and the odd country tune mixed in. They offer no decaf or flavored coffees, the tattooed parents of nattily dressed children abound, and the description of each day's fair-trade roast comes with enough biographical detail to make a union organizer weep.

Presented by

Matt Gross & Theodore Ross

Matt Gross and Theodore Ross write for the website DadWagon. Theodore Ross is the author of Am I a JewMatt Gross is the author of The Turk Who Loved Apples: And Other Tales of Losing My Way Around the World.

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