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Gen Y's opt-out vision

By Courtney E. Martin / April 27, 2006



BROOKLYN, N.Y.

Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day (April 27) would be a great idea if the contemporary workplace was actually a place where we wanted our daughters and sons to end up. Unfortunately, for the second-wave feminists who created it, and fortunately, for the third-wave feminists who aren't having it, this "special day" is about as relevant as a traditional Southern coming out party.

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The "opt-out revolution," first coined by Lisa Belkin in her New York Times Magazine story in October 2003, has since been discussed by feminists and antifeminists alike in countless news features and opinion pieces. The trend of young women rejecting the traditional workforce is, indeed, real. But this trend isn't limited to young women. What social commentators are failing to point out is that both young men and women are not just opting out, we're not even buying in.

Five years after collecting an Ivy League undergraduate degree, I look around at my crew of brilliant and promising young friends and see only a few of us who are willing to slave away 12 hours a day for the security of a 401(k). It isn't that we're impractical - I'd give my pinkie finger for the comfort of health insurance - or adverse to hard work. It comes down to this: We have watched our parents waste away in drab cubicles and count the days to retirement. We have heard them whine about the work/life balance. And we're not having it.

Call me idealistic, but isn't work supposed to be part of life? In other words, a vital, joyful activity? Do I have to accept the idea that "real life" begins when I punch out at 8 p.m. each day? Am I supposed to settle for being alive only on the weekends?

I don't mean to say that my peers and I are spoiled brats who don't want to pay their dues. We do want to contribute to society, but we want to do it in a way that doesn't drain the life out of us. That is why the majority of my friends have gravitated toward self-employment, freelancing, consulting, and part-time work. According to Working Today, a national nonprofit that advocates for these outside-the-box thinkers, 30 percent of the current workforce is independently employed. I predict that this number is heading nowhere but up.

While corporate CEOs and nonprofit executive directors rub their hands together with the anticipation of fresh copying/collating young blood, we are running the other way. A childhood friend in Denver started his own medical supply business right out of college. My writing partner from Houston does freelance music promotion and writes screenplays. My housemate spends his Brooklyn days packaging books and teaching kids to play the guitar. We are digital video artists, web designers, bloggers, stock market players, personal assistants, and bartenders. And we are all in our mid 20s.

Unlike our parents, Generation Y is rejecting the workaholic ethos before we even have kids. We watched them, our beloved babysitters and cool young uncles, enjoy the flexibility and ingenuity of the dotcom work culture before it crashed. We watched our frenetic mothers juggle to-do lists only Vishnu could accomplish and our exhausted fathers stumble home from work in crumpled suits. We want something different.

The "opt-out revolution" is not about young women prioritizing their families over their careers, despite the media hype and doomsday predictions. In fact, recent research by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children," reveals that the majority of women who leave the workforce do so because they are uninspired at work.

The young women I know are powerhouses of ambition, confidence, and innovation. We aren't shrinking from our potential in the big, bad world in favor of safe stay-at-home options. We are defiantly rejecting a culture that doesn't recognize the value of family, flexibility, and fun. We don't even want it all if that "all" includes sleep deprivation, regrets, and illness. We'd rather be excellent at less than mediocre at more, selfish and happy than sacrificing and bitter. We'd rather have a little bit of financial strain and insecurity and a lot of fulfillment, than a whole lifetime of biding our time for some mirage of retirement nirvana.

This is a crisis of culture, not a crisis of commitment. We are composing lives of free agency and ingenuity, making second-wave feminist rhetoric about "choice" real. It is not a failure of feminism that we are opting out. It is, in fact, a tribute to it.

Courtney E. Martin is a writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her book "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters" is forthcoming in March 2007.

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