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Why Men Opting-Out Should Make You Angry

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It's been nearly ten years since I added the phrase "opting-out" to the work/life/gender/parenting conversation, in a 2003 magazine piece that explored the phenomenon of educated women stepping off the fast career track when they have children.

Since then, people have been telling me that the article made them angry -- at me, for letting down Feminism and suggesting that women couldn't do it all; at themselves, for being the women I wrote about; at the women I wrote about, for either copping out or having an escape hatch not available to everyone; at corporate America, for the outdated workplace paradigm that was built around a male biological clock and that forced women to choose between work and family.

I have always wondered whether there would be the same anger at a story about men choosing to ratchet back their careers -- work less, earn less, climb less of the ladder.

It looks like I am getting the chance to find out.

Liza Mundy's new book. "The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Sex, Love and Family," is about many things. As its title suggests, it starts with the prediction that the economic relationship between the sexes is about to flip. Women are already outpacing men in some places and professions, Mundy writes, and in a shift that she compares to "the rise of agrarian society, the dawn of the industrial age, the ascent of the white-collar office worker, and the opening of the global economy" she extrapolates that women will come to be the majority of primary breadwinners in the US. The resulting changes in "the economy and the workplace," she writes, "will shape human behavior by challenging some of the most primal and hard-wired ways men and women see one another, It will alter how we mate, how and when we join together, how we procreate and raise children, and to use the phrase of the founders, how we pursue happiness."

There's a lot to process -- it takes Mundy an entire book -- so let's start with the section titled "The Opt-Out Revolution--Among Men." Yes, it's apparently their turn. Back in 1970, she writes, 80 percent of working age men were employed full-time, a number that has dropped over the decades to only 66 percent. Some of the reasons are cause for despair: unemployment, incarceration. But one segment have left the workplace for reasons Mundy celebrates -- educated men who describe themselves as less ambitious, less likely to believe that men should earn more than women, and more interested in spending time with their children, and increasingly aware that the workplace, as constructed, makes it much too hard to do it all.

Which describes the women I wrote about years ago, right?

So why isn't this making everyone angry?

Probably because, at first blush, one looks like "going forward" while the other looks like "going backward." Women ratcheting back on work to smooth life at home feels like a rejection of everything women have fought for, while men doing the same looks like an embrace of the same. That's progress, isn't it?

Not as much as you'd like to think.

When a small subset of women -- those educated and wealthy enough to actually have a choice -- made the "choice" to "stay home" (I use the quotation marks because it wasn't a choice so much as a response, and they didn't really stay at home so much as redesign their relationship with work) they were a signal that something was toxic in the system. By voting with their feet they challenged a workplace structure and tempo that was predicated on the assumption that men had wives at home -- a structure that did not substantively change when women entered in large numbers.

It took losing these educated, well-trained, valuable workers to create the readjustment that gaining them in the first place had not. And it looked, for a brief while, that the new talk of flexibility, and careers that are not linear, and re-defining success just might become the new norm. That the result would be a system that benefitted all workers, men and women, with parity and equality at work and at home. Not too long ago I would have predicted that this would have been the legacy of the opt-out conversation.

Then came the great recession, and while the work/life balance inroads have not disappeared completely, they have been eroded. How do you demand (or even meekly request) a flexible work schedule in an economy where you feel lucky to have a paycheck? And Mundy's meticulous research and connecting of statistical dots suggests that parity is not necessarily going to be the endgame here. Her prediction of what she calls "The Flip" hints at more of the same, with genders reversed but the dilemma unchanged, with all the change coming on the domestic front, and with very little revamping of the workplace.

Amy Vachon is the author, with her husband Marc, of the book "Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting The Rules For A New Generation Of Parents." They, too, thought that the future would look different than this -- one that looks like their own carefully crafted life, where both men and women find work that is fulfilling (but does not take 70 hours a week) and are reasonably well paid (though not enough to necessarily support a family without a second income) and both partners share equally in chores and child rearing, but also get time for themselves.

Substituting one kind of inequity for another we mean we have travelled far and gotten nowhere, they warn. "If we flip the power to women, we'll just end up with the same role responsibility burdens and imbalanced lives," Amy told me, only with the genders reversed.

That's not progress, that's Backwards Day. And we should opt for better than that.

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