Looking Back, Moving on

Looking Back, Moving on

Looking Back, Moving onMY first Life’s Work column ran nine years ago, give or take a few weeks. This Life’s Work will be my last regular column.

I started writing about this topic just before we knew the boom boom years were over. There were columns about Bring Your Pet to Work Day, and about I.T. workers who could walk across the street during lunch and find a better job.

Then came Sept. 11. Looking back through my columns in the months after that day, I am struck by how many were an attempt to sort through the “new normal,” to suss out whether the fierce determination we all felt — to relish our lives and back off a little on our obsession with work — was fleeting or forever.

The answer turned out to be somewhere in the middle. The years after Sept. 11 have been marked by a real determination by many workers to dovetail their lives with their work, and a striking accommodation by employers, who have begun to see that flexible workers are at least as productive, if not more so, than those who arrive at the office first and are the last to leave.

This march toward flexibility was begun by women — mothers overwhelmed by the demands of a workplace designed in the olden days, when it was assumed that workers would have a spouse taking care of things back home. Some of those women — the ones who were financially able — began to vote against the double load with their feet, leaving the kinds of high-powered jobs that had once been the Holy Grail of the women’s movement.

I wrote an article for The New York Times Magazine about this, and, as it happens, coined a phrase: opting out. It was published on Oct. 26, 2003, almost exactly five years ago, and it was met by a rush of conversation, not all of it friendly.

Women who had been soldiers in the fight for equality were furious, at me and at the women I profiled, for turning their backs on the cause. Women who loved their work were angry that other women were reinforcing the impression that women aren’t serious about careers. Women who could not afford to just walk away from a paycheck saw this as a class schism.

When the shouting died down, though, change began to happen. I have long seen that piece as a bottle-opener. There was discontent and imperfection fizzing around the workplace, and the article popped off the cap and let it all spill out. The last five years have seen a jump in the attention paid by corporate America to ways to make work work, not just for women but everyone. Things are far from perfect, but I have spent a lot of time of late writing about all sorts of variations on the traditional model, “sit in your chair and do your job the way I tell you.”

I am often asked what happened to the women whose choices I profiled in “The Opt-Out Revolution.” There were predictions by many who took time to e-mail me that they would be abandoned by their husbands, becoming unemployable caricatures of a ’50s housewife.

In fact, one marriage did break up, and because it was messy, the woman in question asked me not to use her name here. It was tough for her getting back to work, she said, because she had allowed a gap to open in her résumé — as tough as her critics had warned it would be.

Others have less dramatic, less “moral of the story” endings. Of the women I tracked down, one, Tracey Van Hooser, a former advertising and marketing executive, is still married, now the mother of a third child and still a stay-at-home mom in San Francisco. Another, Sally Sears, a former television reporter, is itching for a faster pace and plans to go back into television news once her son, Will, starts college in the fall. And Katherine Brokaw is now the dean of students at the Emory Law School, proving that you can take time out and land very well.

Looking back at how far the work/life conversation has come in the last five years leads to looking forward and wondering where things will head from here. The economy, of course, will be the determining factor.

During the last decade — while words like flextime and telecommuting were burrowing themselves into the language; while accounting firms were changing their client contracts so that workers were no longer on the road for weeks at a time; while law firms were questioning the tradition of the billable hour — there was always the question of whether this was fundamental change, or a sop to quiet the complaining.

All these programs, like recruiting Wall Street women who had left the work force for a few years, or bringing banking women up to speed on what they had missed when they were out so they could confidently pop back in — would these things evaporate at the first hints of economic trouble?

We’ve had more than a few hints of late. And some of the companies that have taken the biggest hits — Lehman Brothers comes to mind — happened to be prominent players in the life/work arena. No one is suggesting that the reason Lehman failed had to do with the resources spent on progressive recruitment and retention programs. But the sorts of initiatives that make work more family friendly are also the newest, and it is likely that when cuts have to be made in companies, these kinds of programs will be the first to go.

I wonder, too, about the women who have left work for home, or have ratcheted back their ambitions during their years of raising children, and who are now scrambling to return to the work force as the stock market gyrates. Can someone who has been jobless by choice possibly compete in this market with someone who was laid off just weeks ago?

And, finally, I wonder about the future, when we stabilize to some “new normal.” How will the workplace continue to change? The way we work today is unrecognizable when compared with the industrial revolution, and it has little in common with work just a few decades ago. Will Generation Y redefine worker productivity and loyalty, and make it just fine to work from the beach? Will “retirees” never really retire, but craft niches within the workplace that allow them to keep doing the parts they love, but jettison the things they don’t?

I have been immersed in this subject for too long to stop writing about it entirely. The questions are rich and the answers are important. It is time, though, for me to change the location and the frequency of what I write. I have started a daily blog called Motherlode on the Web site of The New York Times (nytimes.com/parenting). It is about the “life” part of life and work. I will also be writing longer pieces on the subject for The Times Magazine, and periodically here in Thursday Styles.

Nine years ago, when I was first asked to take on this column, I thought it would be about answers. I figured I would call smart people and ask them the secrets to a balanced working life, and then I would put that in the newspaper and be a hero.

It didn’t take me long to realize there were no answers — just endless and penetrating questions. Instead of a “how to,” the column became a conversation. I am now taking that conversation online. I hope you join me there, so we can keep talking together.