The concept of choice has been central in my research, which is expected, since ‘opting’ as in opting out is synonymous with choosing or exercising choice. In other words, when we talk about opting out, we talk about people who choose to do so. Therefore I decided early on not to include people who have had no choice but to leave their careers due to reasons like burnout. I wanted to study why people who at least in principle have the choice to stay decide not to, what it is that drives them, and what it is that they look for instead.
Early on I also realized that there was more to this idea of ‘free choice’ than meets the eye. The reason I saw this was because as I interviewed women, it became more and more clear that opting out – choosing to leave – was a long and often painful process riddled with crises. So either way, it certainly wasn’t an easy choice.
We live in a time of globalization, individualization, consumerism, and constant reinvention, and the rhetoric of choice today is very strong. As traditions become less important (we no longer have to live or do things in a certain way just because that’s the way things have always been done), we are encouraged to choose things like what we want to do and who we want to be professionally, a lifestyle, and what we want to stand for from a myriad of choices. And we’re encouraged to do this again and again. As Anthony Elliott writes in his book Reinvention, “flexibility, adaptability and transformation have become intricately interwoven with the global electronic economy.” We have to keep reinventing ourselves professionally in order to stay competitive, which is enabled and exacerbated by therapy culture and the instant makeover industry. But not only that, reinvention also fulfills another need: “the lure of reinvention is that it is inextricably interwoven with the dream of “something else”.” This I think really hits the nail on its head. In a time when things really are very hectic and it’s hard to keep up, we long for that something else which is always just out of reach.
So choice is evidently an important concept in contemporary society. But not only that, choice also gives us a sense of agency in a time when there is a lot of uncertainty, a sense that we can control and shape our lives. When we opt out, we like to think that it is completely our own choice, and not that there are factors that actually may push us to opt out.
Ten years ago, Linda Hirshman coined the expression ‘choice feminism’, which represents a belief that women can and should choose whether or not they want to have a career, or whether or not they want to take advantage of the opportunities that feminists have spent decades fighting for. According to choice feminism, a woman can choose not to have a career and embrace traditional gender norms and still be a feminist, if she chose it herself.
But for a career woman with small children, there are a lot of other forces at work. Mothering is so intimately linked to femininity that if you fail at your job, you’re just a bad worker; but if you fail at mothering (or don’t prioritize it), you’re a bad woman. Yes, ouch… So if having it all becomes too hard, that is if having two full-time jobs (first at work and then at home after work) or if trying to do it all simultaneously becomes too much to handle, women will more often than not choose mothering over their careers. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t want a career, it just means that we (society) expect women to be superhuman.
Choice is complicated. It’s not always clear what decisions are based on. Sometimes there are coping mechanisms at work (it may just feel better to believe that a decision was based on free choice) and sometimes a narrative is created afterwards to supply a sense of agency and control. The point is, choices (or should I say “choices”) are the result of both individual wants and needs, and societal expectations and social pressures. Not to mention all the internal conflicts that we all grapple with.
So yes, women do get pushed out to a certain degree: they still get discriminated, they get mommy-tracked, and they take care of more than their fair share of household chores and care responsibilities. But again, it isn’t that simple. In addition to push-factors there are also pull-factors. What I have found is that not only have these women been pushed to make a change, they also experience the pull of a life where they can be everything they want to be, and do it in a way that makes it possible. They experience the pull of a life where they feel that they can be themselves, instead of hiding certain parts of themselves (like their femininity or their children…) to get ahead in their careers. Or perhaps they just simply want a life where they can do meaningful work without succumbing.
Now I have just started my interviews of men who have opted out* and it is still too early to tell, but it will be interesting to see how similar or different their opting out journeys are compared to those of the women I’ve interviewed. What are the drivers that push men to opt out? What is it that pulls them in their new lifestyles? And how do they make sense of their choices? It remains to be seen.
* A very big thank you to everyone who contacted me regarding interviews! It has been most helpful! If anyone else knows of any men who have opted out who would be willing to be interviewed, or if you are a man who has opted out, you can still contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.