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Be Careful What You Wish For
August 5, 2010 - 7:45pm

My career has always been important to me, but I never wanted it to dominate my personal life. Early on, I instated my “8 o’clock” rule: if it’s not done/read/written/graded by 8:00 pm, it would have to wait until the morning. This was the time when civilized people had a glass of wine and ate dinner with someone they loved.

I fell in love with someone who understood my work, and indeed, was proud of it. He lived abroad with me when I had research to do. He read my book manuscript thoughtfully, and worked on the index for me. He listened to my ideas for lectures and gave me tips on how to use technology more effectively. He took care of the dog when I was away for weeks at a time. He listened to hours of anxiety regarding my reviews.

Unfortunately, I didn’t see that my successes exacerbated his difficulties in finding his dream job. As someone freshly minted into the (non-academic) job market, he was finding his prospects dismal. That year abroad failed to land him the NGO job he’d hoped for and may have hurt his chances when he returned to the States. I didn’t see that my ability to pay bills and have money for dinners and trips highlighted his inability to do so. While he lauded my little triumphs, he wallowed in his own perceived failures. Despite our (often) happiness, the guilt and anxiety for him was too much, and in the end, he moved on to find what opportunities he could.

There is a trend at work here. The July/August 2010 Ideas Edition of The Atlantic boldly proclaims “the end of men,” as Gen-X women come to dominate the workforce, college admissions, and management fields. Young men coming of age during this Great Recession are finding that they are either severely underemployed or not employed at all, for long stretches of time. They are struggling in every way imaginable, while we women are finding our niches in our careers. Gen-X men are being laid off while their wives retain their jobs, but the psychological toll on younger men is incalculable: prolonged unemployment in the early stages of one’s working life is closely associated with dim future prospects, including lower pay over one’s lifetime and limited access to upper-level management positions.

In the classroom, and indeed, across the board at the university, the dominance of women has become apparent. My program, International Affairs, is one of the largest majors in the College and is disproportionately female. We struggle every year to recruit more men to go on our international programs, but every summer I find myself traveling abroad mainly with young women. The Atlantic article points to a sense of lethargy that seems to plague young men in the classroom, and I can attest to that. I know talented male students who admit to feeling hopeless in the face of their prospects, and I see them float through classes while their female counterparts take charge.

As a feminist, I am thrilled that we may be fulfilling the promise of the women’s rights movement. As a professional woman in her 30s I feel empowered in a way that my mother never did. But when I see young men I care about flounder and suffer, and when I see the toll my professional success has had on my personal life, I find it all so bittersweet. The promise of our movement was that women and men would all succeed, and that we would live in a society that valued the talents of everyone, and that we wouldn’t have to give up personal happiness for professional satisfaction.

I wished for a lot. That civilized glass of wine at 8 o’clock now represents a solitary toast to my success.

Denise Horn is an assistant professor of international affairs at Northeastern University in Boston. She is a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.


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