Claire Cain Miller’s recent viral article about “greedy work” and its effect on women’s careers put into words what many women already know from disheartening experience. The NY Times reporter showed in “Women Did Everything Right: Then Work got Greedy” how jobs have morphed into a monstrous octopus, squeezing the life out of family and leisure time. As parenting became more demanding (see my earlier article about this phenomenon), something had to give. For reasons that we’ll be arguing about till kingdom come, that something has generally been women’s work hours.
Work has become something far more than a job for the educated class.
Clearly, globalization is a major culprit in work’s inflationary spiral. Lawyers working on multi-million-dollar deals need to respond to emails from German clients at 6:00 AM; traders have to be available to watch Japanese markets as midnight comes and goes. Technology is the other obvious villain: emails, texting, and slack have taken on the role of a worker’s digital ball and chain.
There is a major upside to all this—the more you work, the fatter the paycheck. Miller points out that the most work-intensive jobs, those in finance, law, and consulting, are also the ones that pay the most. But having two parents, both in greedy jobs, is more than many families can stand. If one parent in a highly-educated couple might have to review a contract last minute before a fast-approaching deadline, it makes sense to have the other at home to put ketchup on the chicken fingers. The former is usually Dad, the latter Mom. In other words, Miller concludes, greedy work pushes men and women into reverting to traditional gender roles.
Judging from the comments and tweets following the article’s publication, there are plenty of women frustrated by thwarted ambitions and what they—correctly—sense is the second-class status caused by today’s unplanned gender arrangements. But Miller’s focus on the gender-pay gap, domestic inequality, and the perverse demands of capitalism ignores another significant reason why taming the work octopus is so hard. Work has become something far more than a job for the educated class. It is a self-expressive, creative, and communal endeavor, an epicenter of meaning in contemporary life. As The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson explains, work has taken on the feel of a new sort of religion, which he calls, “workism.“
Workism first emerged as the manufacturing sector gave way to the knowledge economy. Knowledge economy jobs in media, design, health, academia, technology called for more individual initiative, curiosity, and creativity than the lunch pail factory jobs of the industrial era. The urban policy maven, Richard Florida, who coined the term “creative jobs” to describe these occupations, estimated that between 1970 and 2003, they increased by 50% as a percentage of the U.S. economy; note that almost all of them required four years or more of higher education. Workism is now a creed passed down through generations. Thompson quotes a Pew Research finding that 95% of teens believe “having a job or career they enjoy” will be “extremely or very important” to them. Their Depression-era relatives would be slack-jawed.
The shift from a manufacturing to knowledge economy came at a lucky time for women. They entered the labor force in large numbers, just as the new economy began to offer more and more creative jobs. In fact, the emerging knowledge economy was a little-understood impetus for second wave feminism. Some feminists of that era looked with great suspicion on what Simone de Beauvoir called “the mythology of motherhood.” According to the French philosopher, “Pregnancy annihilates her…she has the impression of not being anything else.” (De Beauvoir—unsurprisingly—never had children.)
At the time, careers seemed an obvious answer to Betty Friedan’s “problem that had no name.” Women could liberate themselves from the boredom and martyrdom that was domesticity. The idea has had a long shelf life. “Your whole identity as a person gets swallowed up in [a baby]," bestselling writer, Peggy Orenstein wrote In her 2000 book Flux; Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids, and Life in a Half-Changed World. Career, on the other hand, "requires the assertion of self."
I daresay few mothers today would describe motherhood as antithetical to their “identity as a person.” But there’s no question that many, if not most, educated women find work a vital source of cerebral challenge, giving them a chance to exercise their ingenuity and to engage in “lifelong learning.” Workism as a creed is something more than this. Workism lifts work into a consuming passion: “Follow your passion!” goes the command for aspiring young people. Workism carries the message that work, more than anything else in life, defines us for the world outside and for ourselves.
As it happens,workism itself can be as greedy as any consulting job. Take the example of Buzzfeed writer, Helen Anne Peterson, who became an Internet star this past winter for her article on Millennial “burnout.” She explored why it was that her generation was working so hard and yet still unable to catch up with the ordinary tasks of life, even when, as in her case, they had no children. Pondering how to cut back on her own work obsession, she is stumped. Her career is “intrinsic to my identity.” Even though she has been thinking hard about the problem of burnout, she continues, “I don’t think that having a child would be a healthy way for me, personally, to force a reconfiguration to labor.” It’s not a greedy job that is causing Peterson’s “physical and emotional exhaustion” or her reluctance to start a family. It’s her own drive and internal narrative.
Globalization has only intensified this romanticizing of work in the middle-class psyche. Client meetings in Morocco or China give jobs an aura of adventure and glamour (at least for ordinary plebs; road warriors often complain about their wanderings.) In a Twitter thread about a week after Clare Cain Miller first brought attention to greedy work, Rukmini Callimachi, who reports on ISIS for the New York Times,tweeted thanks about the recent birth of her baby:
I left the frontline of Baghuz when I was at 7.5 months having done reporting I’m truly proud of. My ultrasound that month was at this Syrian doctor’s office. I came home & gave lectures in another three states. The day my water broke, I filed a Page 1 story.
Commenters were rapturous. “Women are capable of anything,” tweeted one. “I’m grateful we live in a time when a bad-ass foreign correspondent doesn’t have to hide the fact that she’s a mother, too.”
So are we all grateful. Callimachi is a fiercely-dedicated reporter who has advanced our understanding of Islamic extremism. But we are also left with a question: if women are capable of anything, what does it mean for one of them who chooses to go to PTA meetings and arrange toddler play dates? Miller describes one of the mothers she interviewed, who had cut back to part-time work, as “angry that the time she spends caregiving isn’t valued the way paid work is.”
She’s right about that. The You-go-girl enthusiasm for “badass” women and #bossbabes doesn’t help. In fact, it is a handmaiden to the greedy extreme work ethic.
Greedy work: we hate it except when we love it.
This piece originally appeared at Institute for Family Studies
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