Be whatever you want, sort of

In many ways we live in very exciting times. We really do. There are a lot of scary things going on politically, and at times it feels like everything is up in the air, but it is during times like this that you can really make a change. We have a chance to take a stand and shape the future.

Sociologists like Anthony Giddens and the late Zygmunt Bauman talk about how this is a time unlike any we’ve ever experienced before, partly due to the speed at which everything is happening. And I do agree; for better and worse though because not all of it is good, but not all of it is bad either.

One of the things that has been argued to define this exciting time in which we live, is the fact that tradition really isn’t as important anymore as it used to be. We aren’t bound by certain professions and we don’t have to do things in certain ways; we can reinvent ourselves at the drop of a hat. Not only can we, we are encouraged and pushed to do so too. Ulrich Beck coined a very illustrative expression; he talks about contemporary society as a tightrope society. If you don’t constantly keep your balance and reinvent yourself to stay competitive you might just crash to the ground. Not a very uplifting picture.

But still, even though there undeniably is societal pressure to reinvent and stay competitive, the promise of reinvention is also quite intriguing. If traditions don’t matter so much and you can reinvent yourself as you wish, you can do anything you want. Or can you?

This whole idea of individualization, reinvention, and having a multitude of choices has been criticized. They say that it may be true for a chosen few, but many, if not most, are bound by issues like gender, class, and race. The ones who aren’t, are according to these critics basically white men. Not all white men obviously, but white upper and middle class men. And I have to say, I have seen first hand how women, for example, can be bound and held back by traditional gender roles and norms both in the workplace and at home.

For my current project I have been interviewing men who arguably belong to this privileged group of people who can be whatever they want, and choose from a myriad of possibilities. I’ve been interviewing mostly in the US and Finland, and all but one of my interviewees have actually been white middle class males. Now you may wonder why my data set is so homogeneous. Well, Finland as we all know is somewhat restrictive regarding immigration policies, and the Finnish population just isn’t as culturally and ethnically diverse as in many other countries. In the US, the population is much more culturally diverse, but the fact that almost all my interviewees (so far) are white does say something about the people who get promoted and recruited to top corporate positions, which most of these men opted out of.

However, for people who are free to do and be whatever they want, I have to say that I have been struck by how bound by tradition and expectations my interviewees have been when choosing a profession.

You would think that these men who have opted out of their careers to create and adopt new lifestyles and ways of working, are the epitome of this age of reinvention. Yet many of them didn’t really seem to realize that they had that many options when they started out. In fact, most of them felt they didn’t. Many of them talk about how they chose what to study or what to become, based on what was expected of them, either by their families or by their peers. Again and again I hear stories of men who after high school decide to study business, engineering, or law because growing up that is what the men in their communities did. I’ve also heard stories of how men have based their choice of university or major on what their friends have chosen or what is considered high status and will make them rich and powerful.

Subsequently, for some of these men, entering the job market after university became a bit of a rude awakening. They worked for several years before opting out, but many of them reported not enjoying it or nor feeling that they were in the right environment. They often didn’t like the culture or they just didn’t feel at home, and when they finally did opt out they did so to do something completely different. I have interviewed a man who retrained to become a nurse, a few teachers, and a life coach to name a few. Others have opted into research, writing, community work, or they might have set up their own business where they could work on their own terms.

So for white middle class men who have so many options, they sure seemed to have been bound by traditions, expectations, and norms, at least when they were starting out. Thank goodness they had the courage and conviction to break out of that mold.

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