Look, I’m the first to admit: We’ve got first-world problems. Way back in my binder are some pioneer women who managed to survive and raise two digits’ worth of children, working soil that wouldn’t grow a thing. In their day, if you didn’t have a house, you built one. My great-grandmother was in her 50s when she got her GED. She would have loved to have the opportunities that we are blessed with today.
So why are we so anxious about our careers? Alain de Botton broke it down three years ago in a brilliant TED talk. According to him, we’re all victims of
[…] job snobbery. You encounter it within minutes at a party when you get asked that famous, iconic question of the twenty-first century: “What do you do?” And according to how you answer that question, people are either really excited to see you or look at their watch and make their excuses.
If our jobs alone – not the quality of our work, nor indeed our satisfaction with it, nor how fulfilling it is to be around us – define our position in the social hierarchy, as de Botton argues, then it’s no wonder that we’re so anxious about. Furthermore, he states, if we believe that we have bent the world to the ideals of meritocracy, then whether we fail or succeed in society’s eyes, it is entirely our own doing. That’s a heavy burden.
I raise this insight now because it tells us a lot about politics generally and the politics of work-life balance specifically. I think it’s fair to say that support and opposition for efforts to make the work environment more women-friendly both stem from a fundamental belief in meritocracy. Does implementing family-friendly policies unfairly punish women who are unmarried or childless? Do special efforts to develop women’s talents give them an unfair advantage over men? How do we define fair, anyway?
De Botton offers an answer: Let go of society’s idea of success and ensure that we succeed by our own definition. I don’t disagree. The happiest women in my binder are the ones who are blazing their own trails, whether society approves or not. I think we’re right to interrogate our personal definition of success, and that’s largely what I’m trying to do.
Here’s where I depart from de Botton: The institutions that reward society’s definition of success, financially or otherwise, should do the same. There’s an assumption behind asking women who’ve “suceeded” for advice, as if the opportunities that they were able to take advantage of really exist for everyone else. We should do all we can to make sure that’s true.
Perhaps it’s wise to be content with your station when you can’t improve it. But I believe we can – for ourselves, for the women around us, and for our great-granddaughters, who may one day look at how we fought for them, and be filled with gratitude.
Until that day, I’ll whine away.