Book Examines Challenges of Career Focus
HOLLAND - For working parents feeling overwhelmed by the combination of career and family, Dr. Patricia Roehling of the Hope College psychology faculty has a message: it's no wonder.
Roehling is co-author, with Dr. Phyllis Moen of the University of Minnesota, of the book "The Career Mystique: Cracks in the American Dream," published recently by the Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group Inc. of Lanham, Md. The two authors examine the disconnect between the demands of a career and the structure of American society.
"According to myth of the 'career mystique' if you follow the prescribed path of education, work and family, and devote yourself to your job, with long hours and hard work, you will achieve the American dream," said Roehling, who is a professor of psychology and chairperson of the department at Hope College. "But, society has changed and the myth of the career mystique no longer fits the realities of the 21st century."
"Careers are set up for people who can devote most of their time and energy to them, but most workers cannot or do not want to live their lives that way," she said. "The majority of families who have children, even under the age of one, have two parents who work. It has become the reality of family life."
The book's title is inspired by the name of Betty Friedan's 1963 book "The Feminine Mystique," which challenged society's assumption that women should find complete fulfillment by devoting themselves to the duties solely to duties of the home. In the decades that followed, Roehling said, expectations for women changed, and they were able to pursue career opportunities previously available only to their male counterparts. Where only one woman in five worked for pay in 1900, today three out of five are employed. While 35 percent of mothers with infants were employed in 1978, nearly 60 percent work outside the home today.
"Unfortunately, women traded in the feminine mystique for the career mystique and it just doesn't work," she said. "The career mystique is based on the assumption that someone is at home taking care of the needs of the home. That is no longer the case."
Roehling noted that one problem -- as working families know -- is that caring for children and managing a household do in fact take time, and fitting the needs of home around the demands of career can make for a very stressful experience.
And so, families cope as best they can.
"What happens generally is that one member of the family cuts back on their commitment to work," she said. "In most cases it's the woman."
"It may not always mean that she moves from full-time to part-time," Roehling said, noting that instead the change may involve turning down a promotion, or declining assignments that involve travel, or otherwise resisting increased workplace expectations.
However, she said, such decisions also come with a cost where the career track is concerned.
"Once you take a step back, there can be permanent repercussions," she said. "If a person does cut back, then they are taking themselves out of the mainstream, and they may never be able to reposition themselves on the career track."
Parents, the researchers found, also pursue other strategies, such as relying on networks of friends and relatives for support, or working different shifts. They also have fewer children, and are having them later, Roehling noted. A reduced fertility rate, she said, is a characteristic of all industrialized nations.
It's not only working parents for whom the premise behind the career mystique is a poor fit, according to Roehling.
For one thing, she said, in an era of corporate mergers, mass layoffs and plant closings, employees can't be certain that their dedication will be rewarded with the sort of success promised by the career mystique. Changes beyond their control may threaten their security.
Retirees, too, she said, face challenges when they want to ease themselves into retirement by decreasing their commitment to work. As the life span has increased, Roehling said, there are many who could work and would like to work, but don't quite fit in with the full-time, year-round model of employment. In most workplaces options other than full-time employment aren't available to workers without a dramatic change in the nature of their jobs. "You have a lot of vital people facing many years of retirement when they would like to remain employed in a limited fashion," she said. "The problem is that most workplaces don't know what to do with this valuable resource." The researchers see a variety of options that could help improve the situation for today's workers, including a shorter work week, more flexible work hour arrangements, more career entry and exit points for men and women at key points in their lives, and more societal support for families with young children.
Roehling, however, doesn't see major changes forthcoming in the immediate future. The U.S., she noted, is one of the few industrialized nations that does not mandate paid maternity leave, reflecting a general attitude about such issues.
"In the United States, managing the conflicts involved in raising a family and working is considered a private problem. Whereas other governments see it as a public issue," she said.
Neither, she noted, are corporations likely to take up the call on their own. Instead, Roehling said, in recent years the opposite has been true. "As a matter of fact, since the economic downturn many companies have phased out their family-friendly programs," she said.