August 13, 2013
Over the weekend I was catching up on the New York Times and came across this article, The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind since. In fact, while some articles on this site take me hours to write, this one actually wrote itself on my morning run as my mind churned the article over and over again.
A Little Background First
In 2003, the New York Times Sunday Magazine published an article titled The Opt-Out Revolution which talked about the record number of highly educated, high income women who were dropping out of the workforce to stay at home fulltime and raise their children. I actually remember reading that article and thinking about how the women featured (all of whom were married to high earning spouses) were in a very lucky position and that if I had the choice, I could see wanting to stay at home fulltime too.
As I got older though, I realized that when/if the day came that I had kids, while I wanted the flexibility to be around, I’m simply not cut out to be home fulltime. It’s not that I wouldn’t love my children dearly and want the best for them, but that in order for me to be my best (and, thus, be the best mother) I would need some form of outside intellectual and creative stimulation.
This is not meant to be a stay-at-home mom vs. working mom debate. In fact, I think the worst thing we as women have done is feel like we have to choose one side or another and put down those who make different life choices. But I found it very interesting to read the recent article which basically went back, 10 years later, and asked those same women if they were glad they’d made the choice to opt-out of the workforce. The results, as the article’s title hints at, shows that the decision to opt-out came with huge consequences for some.
Obviously, the removal of a paycheck impacted the family’s income, but in some cases without that paycheck the balance and equality between wife and husband started to slide. Similarly, the article points out that while many of these women left during the economy’s boom in 2003, the Great Recession that followed - which took away more male positions than female in the workforce - left some of these families struggling mightily when the husband lost his job and neither spouse was able to find employment again.
More than just finances though, there was the emotional toll opting out took on some women. Again, while they cherished their time with their children, their self-esteem and sense of self-worth took a huge hit which, not surprisingly, impacts the family dynamic significantly. In almost every case in the article, the women who had planned to stay at home for a short period of time and then reenter the workforce found it significantly harder to explain away a gap on their resume then they perhaps originally anticipated.
Call me an optimist, but I do believe it’s possible to have an intellectually and creatively stimulating career and have a life. That is the incredible thing with being an entrepreneur. No matter what kind of business it is you want to build, you are – for the most part – in control and you can determine when you want to lean in (to pull from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s highly polarizing book about women and careers that was released earlier this year) and when you want to back off a little bit and spend more time on family. As my business coach pointed out, entrepreneurs can have it all, just not necessarily all at the same time.
I know highly talented, ambitious women who have left their high-stress jobs to be at home and have started home businesses, sometimes they’re food businesses (thanks to new Cottage Food laws throughout the US) and sometimes they’re craft businesses. But I also know women who have started up import companies and software companies from their dining room tables while the kids played in the background.
Opting Into A Future
In the classes I teach, I often talk about setting goals up front before you start your business or before you launch a new product or even as you start a new fiscal year. Goals though, I say, can take any shape or form. Somewhere along the way, we in the US came to believe that “success” always had to be tied to a financial measurement. For some people, creating a successful business is tied to finances and the ability to, for example, make enough to pay the mortgage or even make enough to attract an investor or buyer and cash out at a healthy multiple. But for others – many, many others – success isn’t about IPOs and stock options. Because we are each at different stages in our lives, success may look very different. A retiree who wants to build the business she’s always dreamt of and pass it along to her grandchildren is going to have different goals and different measures of success than the stay-at-home parent with young children who wants to take her woodworking skill and ‘make some things’ in the garage when the kids are asleep and sell those items at craft shows as a way to keep mentally engaged in the business world. With so many voices telling us what to do – to opt in, to opt out, to lean in, to lean out – it’s no wonder we feel completely overwhelmed half the time!
An international classmate of mine in business school once told me that Americans are lucky because, he said, entrepreneurship is a skill that US employers value. He envied the fact that Americans could start up businesses and even have those businesses fail but that it was seen as more of a badge of honor than something disrespectful. In Spain, where he was from, he explained, that would never happen. If you ‘opted out’ to become an entrepreneur then you were more or less kissing any chance of a traditional career track out the window and you’d better hope the business succeeded.
He’s right, at least from the standpoint of those of us in America. Entrepreneurship is seen as a badge of honor here regardless of how big/small/technical/crafty/or home-based your business is. Employers appreciate the fact that entrepreneurs have to wear many hats as they get their businesses up and running and that gives us a tremendous skill base to work from and makes us valued – sometimes even sought after – employees.
There are certainly no guarantees with entrepreneurship, but if it gives you the chance to build the life you want and can help set you up for a potential re-entry into the workforce, doesn’t it makes sense to start looking at opting in to an entrepreneurial life?