The Career Mystique shows that most Americans-men and women-continue to embrace the myth that hard work, long hours, and continuous employment pay off, even though it is out of date and out of place in twenty-first-century America. Phyllis Moen and Patricia Roehling argue that the lock step arrangements around education, work, family, and retirement no longer fit the realiThe Career Mystique shows that most Americans-men and women-continue to embrace the myth that hard work, long hours, and continuous employment pay off, even though it is out of date and out of place in twenty-first-century America. Phyllis Moen and Patricia Roehling argue that the lock step arrangements around education, work, family, and retirement no longer fit the realities and risks of contemporary living, yet the roles, rules, and regulations spawned by the career mystique remain in place. This books shows that ambiguities and uncertainties about the future abound in boardrooms, in offices, and on factory floors, as Americans face the realities of corporate restructuring, chronic job insecurity, and double demands at work and at home. Moen and Roehling show the career mystique for what it is: a false myth standing in the way of creating new, alternative workplaces and career flexibilities. Based on research funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the National Institute on Aging....more
Paperback, 291 pages
November 28th 2004
by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
(first published 2004)
Wow, this one took me a while. It's not often that I read books of a more academic persuasion straight through, but I found this on the library shelf while moving books at work, and it sucked me into its vortex.
The premise is that the American Dream is an illusion, but even that doesn't sum up the full complexity of this work. In 1963, there was Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, which gave voice to women's "problem with no name"--that they were expected to be full-time wives and homemakersWow, this one took me a while. It's not often that I read books of a more academic persuasion straight through, but I found this on the library shelf while moving books at work, and it sucked me into its vortex.
The premise is that the American Dream is an illusion, but even that doesn't sum up the full complexity of this work. In 1963, there was Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, which gave voice to women's "problem with no name"--that they were expected to be full-time wives and homemakers with no option to be anything else.
Now, our society has developed the "career mystique" of the title--that anyone and everyone can follow the "lock-step" pattern of education, full-time employment, and subsequently leisure-filled retirement. The folly of this is that being able to work full-time depends on having someone to take care of domestic duties. Is the problem becoming clear?
The authors elaborate:
...jobs remain designed as if employees were able and willing to focus exclusively on them. Jobs, schools, medical services, and many other aspects of contemporary life continue to assume that someone (a wife) is available during the typical workday to care for children ... to have the refrigerator fixed or the new stove delivered; to engage in the civic activities that build communities. But the wives who facilitated men's careers now have careers of their own, as do the sisters, mothers, grandmothers, friends, and neighbors that working women relied on as backup in the past. p.190
This is not to say that we should go back to the breadwinner/homemaker model, rather that the way American working society functions has not caught up with contemporary reality. This has severe consequences for the very poor, for healthy family lives, and for the future of our population. Some quotes:
Risks of poverty associated with single parenthood are now exacerbated by welfare reforms that assume that (1) jobs are available to low-skilled people, and (2) such jobs pay enough for people to work their way out of poverty. p.192
Time has become a scarce commodity in American life. This is especially problematic given the equating of work time with work commitment and employers' expectations of high commitment. As a fixed commodity, time allocated to employment is necessarily unavailable for other activities, including family relations. When all adults in families are paid employees, the family gains in income. Employees themselves may experience a sense of productive engagement and self-esteem. What is lost when everyone is earning a living is time for living. (emphasis added) p.192
Today, even in educated households, taking time out of the labor force or working a reduced schedule to raise young children, to care for aging parents, or simply to have a saner lifestyle can wreak havoc on seniority, salary, security, retirement income, and possibilities for promotion. Many workers try to solve the dilemmas of managing job, family, and personal life by controlling what is in their control: by delaying childbearing, having fewer children, or having none at all. This is a key point: Advanced nations, including the United States, are experiencing record lows in fertility precisely because most women and men want or need to be productively engaged in the workforce, and neither men nor women can figure out how to synchronize family-care work and paid work. p.194
The solution the authors suggest is that the United States must rise to the challenge of creating "integrative, flexible careers--occupational paths that acknowledge rather than ignore personal and family goals and obligations, (re)educational goals and needs throughout adulthood, and midcourse inclinations for second acts, including postretirement and civic engagement." p.199
This book was a challenge to me and I hope that its premises become a challenge to our entire country. The authors predict that, in a characteristically human way, we will not change the system until crisis necessitates it. I, for one, hope that they are proven wrong. Workers need to be respected regardless of gender and given society's blessing to pursue whatever life choices they wish--whether it's to do family care work, paid work part-time, paid work full-time, or a mix of those at different periods of their lives. We are people who love our families and need time to rest--not antisocial robots who can dedicate our full attention and life servitude to a corporation or institution.
As individuals, we can do what is possible to focus on our loved ones rather than our jobs, but not all of us are guilty of pursuing stuff we don't need--some of us need to work like crazy just to get by. This is why some of the changes need to happen on the corporate level, where income is not keeping up with rising costs of living, and the government level, where dysfunctional programs foist unrealistic expectations on what single parents with little education can do to pull themselves and their children out of poverty. On a personal level, couples should not have to choose between both having a secure career on the one hand and the destruction of their relationships on the other.
There is anger here, and a call to action. Let's all hope that action won't be too late....more