Single People Deserve Work-Life Balance, Too

In every major city, people with and without children are quietly cobbling together more flexible schedules. We can all learn from their success.

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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.

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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.

In Slate's co-ed discussion about The Atlantic's cover story, Marcelle Friedman, a recent college graduate, says to editor Allison Benedikt (who in turn describes herself as "ahem, no longer young"): "It sounds to me like you and your peers represent an intermediary generation that quietly does 'have it all.'" While Benedikt jokes back, "AND a Subaru Outback," I get what Friedman is saying! When I look around at my married-with-children friends and colleagues, nearly all of whom are writers or editors, I see people who are somehow, by hook or by crook, making it work -- amidst a recession, in a touchy, insecure industry, in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Friedman's use of the word "quietly" is telling. If, as a culture, we haven't figured out how to define this brand of "having it all" in the pockets where it may currently exist, we're probably that much further away from the goal of being able to articulate how we could possibly be putting men and women in other situations on a similar path.

Publishing and the media writ large are unique entities, obviously: technological advances make a non-office-centric-life more and more possible in these lines of work. (Though only a fool would argue that the best path for work-life balance entails voluntarily enlisting in such a volatile profession!) But the people I observe (and whom Marcelle Friedman may be observing) -- those men and women, married or not, who are quietly cobbling together part-time and contract jobs to improvise more flexible work schedules that, should they choose it, can more readily accommodate families -- ought to be recognized and talked about, if only in the hopes that certain aspects of the arrangement might be replicated in other working lives.

Slaughter was brave to take on such a complicated topic with such honesty -- and in doing so has even flushed out some of the "quiet" success stories for the rest of us to talk about -- and for that I'm very grateful. To make real progress, we need members of an older, more established guard -- perhaps not coincidentally those who also have more access to power -- to be talking about this, at minimum so that we might be shaken from our own private assumptions, which may hail from a since-outdated childhood.

In the back of my mind, I always had the example of my independent-minded, self-employed parents. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, my lawyer father opted out of corporate life to start his own small firm, and my mother reinvented herself as a freelance journalist who worked from home, expressly so they could be actively engaged with their children and community. As a child, I thought they were showing me how to balance work and family life -- but what ended up happening is that they were teaching me the flexibility required of anyone who hopes to navigate a less vibrant economy.

In time, I, too, was able to fashion my career in such a way that I didn't have to be in an office at all. The irony, of course, is that I still haven't gotten around to marriage or children, either. But to six-year-olds, this may now be a commonplace enough realization that it's shaping their earliest dreams. If that ever starts to sound anything other than cute to us, we'd better start making some real changes -- for everyone who works in America.