In the Atlantic, Hanna Rosin recently defended the hookup culture as essential to female success and equality. Given the pressure of a high-powered career, she claims, “an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.” In order to carve out time for work, women need the same option men have long enjoyed: “the ability to delay marriage and have temporary relationships that don’t derail education or career.”
Rosin may think she’s delivering a paean for the hookup culture, but she’s really giving a eulogy for intimacy. A life that has no room for serious romantic partners can’t have much space for deep friendships either. This should be the one culture war fight where we can all be on the same side: if careers preclude real relationships, something’s gone deeply wrong. Instead of arguing about how much of the void hookups can fill, I’d like to attack the root of the problem: the miscategorization of career as vocation.
The totalizing careers that Rosin describes are not uniquely the problem of women, nor are they limited to the banking industry she profiled. Women like Anne-Marie Slaughter notice the impossibility of having it all because they had higher hopes than men to start with. Male CEOs are not asked how they will balance the responsibility to their jobs with their obligations to their children because it is assumed that a parental relationship is a luxury for men at the top. Women entered the workforce, but didn’t submit to its disregard of the family, so they are achingly aware of the tradeoffs. And we’re better off feeling that pain and steeling ourselves to fight than accepting the status quo and not noticing a sacrifice is being made.
Today, many of the most high-status jobs for the well-educated make a virtue of intensity and commitment. Investment banking boasts 80-hour work weeks; Teach for America’s emotional crucible results in a high burnout rate; and jobs in the political sector spawn articles like Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cri de coeur. Have a Type A personality? These jobs are ready to push you to (or past) your limit, and isn’t that what excellence is all about?
There’s a word for people who turn over their entire waking life to one cause, and willingly sacrifice the possibility of a family for the opportunity to serve: monks (or, more archaically, oblates). Just like the driven twenty-somethings of Rosin’s article, monks and nuns have made a commitment so total that it precludes marriage. But in the case of vowed religious, the form of their service is meant to be elevating, not just useful. I seldom hear people claim that spreadsheets are good for the soul. Even for people doing high intensity work for the public good (the teachers, the social workers, the public interest lawyers, etc.), the form of their work may still be deadening.
Most careers aren’t vocations, so we need space outside them to grow and love. It’s possible to make a short-term decision to put life and relationships on hold, in order to make a high-intensity commitment to a cause (this is the model for the oft-touted national service draft), but it’s unhealthy to let these crisis-mode jobs give shape to your life.
If we were honest about what these jobs entail, we’d talk less in terms of success and more in terms of sacrifice and seclusion from the world. If we recognized the single-minded focus that drives Rosin’s interviewees to think of intimacy as obstacle, as life-thwarting, we might not hold it up as the ideal, the logical next step for the best and the brightest. Or, if the work is truly important and can only be done by using smart, high-energy graduates as emotional cannon-fodder, maybe we’d start thinking about how to reintegrate them into normal life, once their time of service was up.
We might find a guide in the Mormon model for missionaries. Mormons do have a culture in which young people are expected to give over two years of life to a higher cause, but the isolating, exhausting life of a missionary isn’t meant as a permanent vocation. When their two years are up, Mormonism’s oblates return to a tightly knit community that serves as a reentry program to intimacy and marriage. There is no secular equivalent.
After graduation from college, young adults lose their deadlines. We stop making transitions as a cohort, and are expected to figure out when new stages of life begin on our own. Maturity, we’re told, is a kind of existentialist skill, learning how to define and describe your life. But we could use some better archetypes to draw on. There’s no more weakness in being part of a tradition and a structure than there is in an author drawing on one of Joseph Campbell’s narrative types.
The high-commitment jobs that drive Rosin’s interviewees to forgo intimacy and that sunder Slaughter and her peers from their families are pernicious because we don’t yet have an expectation of when and how to leave them. There’s no exit strategy, no moment when your life as a turbine ends, and your real life as an adult with responsibilities and vulnerabilities begins.
Traditions are hard to build from scratch, but if writers like Rosin and Slaughter keep showing us sickening portraits of the sacrifices we don’t quite acknowledge as such, we’ll have to own up to the ugliness of the system we’ve built. We have to move beyond examining and debating the coping measures that Rosin describes and start talking about new models of excellence—not focused on seeing how much you can bear before you break, but on how much you’re willing to admit before someone else that you’re already broken and incomplete.
Leah Libresco blogs for Patheos’s Catholic Portal at Unequally Yoked.
“Boys on the Side,” by Hanna Rosin, The Atlantic, September 2012
“Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” by Anne-Marie Slaughter, The Atlantic, July/August 2012
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