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The new possibility

Beyond the lockstep life course

The Career Mystique:
Cracks in the American Dream

By Phyllis Moen and Patricia Roehling
Rowman & Littlefield, 2005

Despite our legendary optimism, there is compelling evidence that Americans are no longer living in the land of opportunity. Income inequality and the concentration of wealth in the U.S. now rivals the gulf between the "haves" and the "have nots" in the years leading up to the Great Depression, and recent occupational and income analyses show that U.S. workers are less likely to achieve upward mobility than their European counterparts. Yet the mythic narrative of the American Dream -- the unshakable belief that hard work, ingenuity and can-do attitude will be generously rewarded -- continues to shape every aspect of our public and private worlds.

Needless to say, there are some glaring omissions in this particular ideological roadmap, not the least of which is that only certain kinds of hard work are counted as worthy work, while other kinds of hard work are not counted at all. Although equal pay and equal opportunity in the workplace are technically, if not rigorously, enforced by federal law, individual characteristics such as age, race and gender continue to influence employers' estimation of whose work is more valuable. According to sociologist Phyllis Moen and psychologist Patricia Roehling, our collective faith that hard work pays off (and the companion logic which assumes those who find the American Dream out of reach simply aren't trying hard enough) also serves as the substrate for employment practices and public policies that are noticeably more work-friendly than family-friendly. In The Career Mystique, Moen and Roehling argue that the inflexible clockwork of American careers -- which translates the cultural ideal of working hard to get ahead into a "lockstep" progression from education to continuous full-time employment until retirement -- is chronically out of synch with the larger social and economic realities of twenty-first century life.

Moen and Roehling remind us once again that for the iconic middle-class families of the post-World War II era, realizing the American Dream required hard work by two people: a full-time wage earner and a full-time homemaker. Fulfilling the Dream also depended on industry conditions, wage growth and promotion schedules that made it possible for married couples with growing families to rely on the earnings of a sole blue- or white-collar worker. But above all, the lopsided formula of the mid-twentieth century career mystique -- which Moen and Roehling describe as "the expectation that employees will invest all their time, energy and commitment throughout their 'prime' adult years in their jobs, with the promise of moving up in seniority or ascending career ladders" -- was predicated on women's willingness to conform to the feminine mystique.

Thanks to Betty Friedan and the second wave of the women's movement, we've pretty much jettisoned the notion that every iota of a woman's time and talents should be concentrated on the roles of wife and mother (although it would be a mistake to assume we're completely in the clear, since vestiges of the feminine mystique -- and the ideology from which it emanated -- remain firmly ensconced in our nation's cultural norms, institutional arrangements, and social policies). But while women and families have -- out of necessity -- gone about the business of reinventing themselves over the last forty years, the career mystique survived relatively unscathed. Moen and Roehling go so far as to suggest that equality-minded women were unwittingly trapped in its thrall when they swapped the disadvantages of domesticity for career ambitions based on a soon-to-be-outdated model of male lives. Notably, the authors criticize the popular discourse of work-life "balance" as a gendered metaphor which places the burden of "balancing" squarely on women's shoulders. (For this reason and others, many work-family scholars -- and some activists -- are now moving away from the framework of "balancing" careers and family toward more holistic concepts of "work-life integration" and "work-life interaction.")

Moen and Roehling claim that the career mystique continues to define not only how we measure our success -- "sacrifice by working hard, the myth goes, and you'll reap wealth, security, status, health insurance, pensions, respect, love, admiration, and happiness" -- they add that its tenets and promises are fundamental to the way we think about and order our lives. "Almost all aspects of life in twenty-first century America," the authors observe, "embrace a cultural regime of roles, rules and regulations fashioned on this myth."

But the magic mantra of working hard and playing by the rules to get ahead -- and following the lockstep life course spelled out in the career mystique-- never applied to all workers, and no longer fits the life patterns, economic realities and preferences of most adults in the contemporary workforce. Nor does it mesh with the changing dynamics of workplaces transformed by new technology and the demands of global competition. As secure jobs with good benefits become fewer and farther between for even the most qualified workers, Moen and Roehling report "there are growing cracks in the American Dream:"

Many men and women are trying to follow the career mystique, working long hours at demanding jobs only to climb ladders that lead nowhere or else to find the promised ladders no longer exist. Women and minorities often find that such career ladders as do exist often have glass ceilings. In the past, sociologists and economists divided work and workers into two types: the primary workforce (mostly unionized or middle class with continuous full-time employment, full benefits and opportunities for advancement) and the secondary labor market (mostly women, but also including men of color, immigrants and those with few skills and little education). But today's global economy has an international workforce, new information technologies, and a never-ending story of mergers, buyouts, acquisitions and bankruptcies… Restructuring, or downsizing, often means forced early retirements and layoffs for some, fewer benefits and greater workloads for others. This "risk" economy effectively places almost everyone in something akin to a secondary-labor market.

The Career Mystique expands on the relationship between gender inequality and the desirable characteristics of the "ideal worker" discussed by legal scholar Joan Williams in Unbending Gender (2000), although casual readers may find Moen and Roehling's style a bit more accessible. The authors' survey of current research on families and work hours -- including the series of uncomplicated graphs appearing throughout the chapters -- provides a good overview for those unfamiliar with the wealth of empirical research on the contemporary motherhood problem. Of particular value is Moen and Roehling's perspective on work-life integration across the life course (which reflects Moen's special area of study); The Career Mystique catalogs the work-life conflicts -- and preferences -- of older Americans as well as those of young and mid-life workers. The chapter on changing patterns of retirement will have special significance for mothers who've recalibrated their career aspirations in order to spend more time caring for young children and may be compelled to embark on a second (or third) career in their late thirties, forties or even fifties. Moen and Roehling also examine the effects of one spouse's job constraints (such as travel, relocation, and executive hours) on marital satisfaction and employment patterns of the other spouse, and it's a relief to see these factors finally treated as something more than a peripheral influence on married parents' work and caregiving arrangements. Throughout their book, the authors supplement a steady stream of facts and figures on work-life trends in the U.S. with brief profiles and quotes from participants of Moen's Ecology of Careers study.

Like other researchers and social observers who view our "winner take all" society as a pathological mutation of rational individualism and its ugly little offspring, the career mystique, Moen and Roehling call for an overhaul of employment practices and public policy. In particular, they look beyond the need for more humane and flexible work hours to the necessity of normalizing more flexible career paths, and more options that would allow workers to periodically reduce their work commitments or take time out -- for education, caregiving or leisure -- without kissing their hard-earned occupational status goodbye. But while the authors list an impressive assortment of reasons why abandoning the career mystique as we now know it is critical for the betterment of society, their recommendations for the actual implementation and regulation of the proposed new standard of flexible careers are frustratingly vague.

Moen and Roehling admit that more worker- and family-friendly policies and practices "will only come about when the economic and social costs of doing nothing outweigh the costs of change." Even so, the authors insist it's not a question of if, but when, the American way of work will undergo this seismic shift. "Outmoded conventions, metaphors, and stereotypes about paid work, unpaid care work, gender, retirement, and old age operate as real impediments to productivity on the job, life quality at home, and community revitalization," they conclude. "Traditional, but now outmoded institutional arrangements that gave substance to the career mystique are alterable. What is difficult is coming to terms with the need to do so."

Judith Stadtman Tucker
July 2005


Also on the MMO:

The Career Mystique
An excerpt from the book

"The feminine mystique was only part of the story, half the gender divide. It was, paradoxically, embedded in the American Dream that anyone could make it through hard work. Only, that "anyone" was assumed to be a man. What emerged for American men following World War II was a lockstep template -- a one-way pathway from schooling through full-time, continuous occupational careers to retirement. This lockstep career path both enabled the feminine mystique and was sustained by it. Men could lead work centered lives precisely because their wives took care of the daily details of family and home."

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