Choice is complicated

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 theoptingoutblog@gmail.com.

Thinking out of the box (or working two hours per day)

A few days ago, Swedish Professor Bodil Jönsson caused a bit of a stir in Swedish media. In an interview, she stated that, considering our technological developments and how productive we have become during the past decades, we should really be working much shorter days. She even goes as far as to say that two hours per day could be sufficient. Yes, you read correctly, two hours.

Now I think that is fantastic. I don’t know if I agree with the two hours, I still need to think about that, but I greatly admire what Jönsson is doing. She is questioning the status quo; she is thinking out of the box.

The working culture and career models that dominate today haven’t always been standard. They are a result of industrialization, and were developed after the Second World War. In the history of the world, 70 or so years is not a very long time, however, it is long enough that we have difficulties imagining an alternative. Since this is the only working culture we know, it has become a ‘truth’ – and it seems like the only right way of working and living. Imagining other truly different models or ideologies is difficult, and if we can imagine them, they may seem silly, unethical, or simply wrong.

Two-hour workdays may sound crazy, but that is assuming that being busy, efficient, competitive, and constantly striving for greater profits is something to aim for. And this is exactly what Jönsson is questioning. She is calling for a re-examination of the ethical and moral reasons for working the way we do. In our current working culture, we are defined by what we do, and advancing in our careers provides us with power and a sense of worth. Jönsson is asking why we still live according to these ideals, considering what we have achieved. Who really benefits from them?

At the same times she argues that we need to re-evaluate what is considered real and valued work. But this idea of two-hour workdays doesn’t only entail less work. Jönsson argues that we need to think about how we work; we need to find different ways of working. And let’s be honest, eight hours in an office doesn’t necessarily mean eight hours of efficient work. On the contrary, I think at a certain point energy levels just go down the longer we stick around cooped up in the office.

I might still be undecided regarding whether or not two hours is what we should strive for, but I do know that the hectic pace we have today is not doing us any favors. This need to stay lean, flexible, and competitive, combined with the downsizing and constant streamlining we’re seeing in organizations today, is stressful. And negative stress can have dire effects on health. It is simply time to create and adopt more sustainable ways of working. And this doesn’t mean we should achieve less, we just need to achieve it differently, and yes, maybe re-evaluate what’s important.

I admire Jönsson for her creativity and audacity, and her courage to voice opinions that may be outside of people’s comfort zones. More of us should try to come up with ideas that question the status quo and completely contradict what we know as ‘true’. And while you’re doing that, please ignore anyone that says that this is not the way things are done, because only then can we instigate real change.

As some wise person once said, “People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”

Imagining it is the first step towards change

I was at lunch the other day with two good friends of mine, and over sushi we had a conversation about what is considered an acceptable way to work – acceptable not only by society or according to organizational norms, but what we ourselves consider acceptable. We talked about how this may hold us back from creating a lifestyle that we truly want and can live with.

In organizational culture, there is a relatively narrow view of what a good or successful career path looks like. Mainstream careers are still quite linear and as an employee you are expected to be committed, constantly available, and to want to advance according to a certain pattern and timetable. I, as well as others, have argued that the career models that prevail in organizations today haven’t really kept up and don’t necessarily correspond to how contemporary individuals want to work, nor do they accommodate our needs.

However, talking to my friends made me realize that, not only do prevalent career models and working cultures hold us back, we also do it ourselves. A person may opt out of a certain job or lifestyle that isn’t working for him or her, simply to opt back in to more of the same because we have been taught, and are conditioned to believe that we need to follow certain norms and ways of working. We may feel guilty or pressured by this hectic culture in which we live to follow these norms, instead of investing time, and perhaps money, in creating the lifestyle that we really want. We need to allow ourselves to slow down, even when we are expected to rush off and be busy, in order to create the new lifestyle we want.

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, talks about how people are individually responsible for setting a pace at work that they can live with. She says you need to just say no if it’s too much, because your employer won’t. Your employer will always ask for more. I have argued that it can’t only be the employee’s responsibility; the employer must also take responsibility for not working their people into the ground. Not everyone is as senior and established as Sandberg, and saying no may feel like a big risk.

But Sheryl Sandberg also has a point. Maybe it isn’t only the outdated, and for many people inadequate, career models that are holding us back from leading lives that are balanced and that give us energy. Maybe it’s also us. We’re so conditioned to work in a certain way – to have a certain work ethic – that it’s hard to break out of that pattern. However, there is hope.

According to philosopher and social theorist Cornelius Castoriadis (and his work on the social imaginary), people have a capacity to imagine something new that does not already exist in society. And if you can imagine it, you have already enabled the change. So that’s what we need to do. We need to continue imagining what our lives should be like, and then ignore possible inner voices that tell us that it isn’t good enough.

How do you decide to opt out?

Researching opting out has been incredibly inspirational for me in many ways. It’s been a very personal project – I opted out of my own business career in 2009. But it is also because of all the interesting and exciting discussions I’ve had on opting out over the past five or so years. I don’t think I’ve met a single person who didn’t have at least some thoughts or opinions on opting out. When people find out what I do, they often want to talk about it. They either know someone who has opted out, they might have done it themselves, or they just wish they could do it too.

However, even though they may want to or dream about it, most people don’t opt out. If so many people want to opt out, why aren’t more doing it? I don’t think the main answer here is money. Yes, money plays in, and quitting your job is a risk. But we have to remember, according to my definition of opting out, opting out means opting in to doing something else, to another way of working or living. One opting out myth is that it is only women with rich husbands who opt out. The truth is, most people who opt out need to be able to support themselves and continue to do so after having opted in to a new lifestyle. Many of the women I interviewed were married to husbands who could support them if needed, but I have also interviewed single moms, women who are single and don’t have children, and women who were the main breadwinners in their family before opting out.

No, there is another reason, and that is that opting out is a huge change, it is stepping out into the unknown and that is scary. It is hard to imagine anything other than the way of life you know. In my research I have found that people don’t opt out until they have some sort of defining moment – a crisis of some sort – that pushes them to take the step. It can be health problems, a conflict of interests at work, an identity crisis, a death, anything really, but it is a moment when they realize they can’t go on this way. There is a sense of urgency and they opt out without having any grand plan, and figure it out as they go.

People ever so often ask me for advice on how to opt out. Opting out is romanticized in the media, you often see stories of happy people who have changed their lives and started doing something completely different. There is no shortage of self-help books on how to change your life, how to find your authentic you, how to be happy, and there is a huge market for life coaching. But still, people don’t know how to opt out, and I can’t very well tell them to go and have a crisis and the rest will figure itself out…

A friend of mine posted a quotation on Facebook a while ago: “Never be afraid to fall apart because it is an opportunity to rebuild yourself in the way you wish you had been all along.” – Rae Smith.

I find this worrisome, how can you glorify falling apart? A lot of people who fall apart don’t manage to put themselves back together. How can it be that you need to have a crisis in order to create a life that you can live with?

What if we lived in a culture that didn’t make us want to opt out in the first place? What if working cultures allowed us to be ourselves and embrace who we are, and to combine work and other areas of life in a way that felt meaningful? What would that look like?