Less work, more life

By Caitlin Kelly

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I loved this recent post by a friend and colleague, a Toronto-based travel writer, Heather Greenwood-Davis, who has seen much of the world, and even took her two young sons and husband globe-trotting with her for a year.

Heather trained as a lawyer and did well, but…

 

My marriage suffered. My friendships suffered. My health suffered. I began to shut out the world and as a result the very people I thought I was suffering for.

It made no sense.

What was the point of a full bank account if I wouldn’t be around to enjoy it with them?

And so I downsized my career and upsized my happiness. I followed my passions and though there was an immediate hit financially, the life I’ve been able to craft with my family has more than made up for it. The happier I became, the more I earned.

 

As long-time readers of Broadside know, this is really one of my obsessions and an issue I care very deeply about.

Do you know this book — written by Elizabeth Warren and her daughter? — The Two-Income Trap? It argues that chasing the American Dream might be a fool’s errand.

If you’ve never read this classic book “Your Money or Your Life”, it’s an eye-opener. It makes clear, in plain and unvarnished language, the very real choice we make — we spend our lives focused on making (more and more and more) money, grow old and die.

That’s normal life for 99% of us.

But should it be?

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We’re not robots. We all need a hand, a hug and some help!

Do we all really need the biggest, fastest, shiniest, latest, 3.0 version of everything?

 

The tiny house movement addresses this longing as well, as some people choose to live in homes of 200 to 300 square feet, giving them the financial freedom to make less punishing choices than staying in a job they loathe to…pay the bills.

And so many students are graduating college with staggering debt and having very little luck finding a good job, the kind they hoped that college degree would help them attain.

For too many hard-working people, the “virtuous cycle” of work has long since been replaced with a vicious one, as so many us earn less than we used to, costs rise, good jobs are outsourced and turned into “gigs” with no benefits or access to unemployment insurance.

Whatever loyalty many people once felt to a job, employer or industry….Today? Not so much.

Every year, surveys show that a staggering portion — like 75 percent — of Americans are “disengaged” at work.

They arrive late, take sick days, dick around when they’re supposed to be working. They hate their jobs or, at best, feel bored, stifled, under-challenged.

This is brutal.

This is heartbreaking.

We only get one life — and it goes by very very fast.

 

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Beauty helps!

I so admire Heather for making a decision that goes against every sociocultural imperative: get (and cling to) a fancy job, make tons of money, make more, buy tons of stuff, buy more.

We’re urged by everyone — friends, teachers, parents, bosses — to keep climbing the ladder of material success and professional glory, no matter what it costs you emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually.

I live in the same one bedroom apartment I moved into in June 1989.

If you had told me this would become my life, I would have laughed. I moved around a lot, and liked it.

I’d never before lived in any one domicile more than four years — and that was back in high school, with my father.

But my chosen life in New York also threw me a bunch of curveballs: three recessions in 20 years, a brief first marriage, an industry — journalism — that fired 24,000 people in 2008 and is in serious chaos today.

 

Life, if we are lucky, is a series of choices that reflect our deepest values, principles and priorities.

 

I didn’t want to change careers or leave New York, still the center of journalism and publishing.

I had no wish to assume enormous student debt to return to college to retrain for an entirely different line of work.

I didn’t want to move far upstate, or out of state, where I could live more cheaply, and possibly face serious social isolation, which I’d hated in New Hampshire.

My stubbornness created its own challenges!

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How much is enough?

I don’t have children, so did not have those serious financial responsibilities to consider.

I’ve been very fortunate to have maintained health insurance and good health (even with four orthopedic surgeries in a decade.)

My priority, always, has been to create the freedom to travel and to retire, (and we have) and to work on issues and stories that make sense to me.

It means making, and spending, less money.

We’re outliers, in some key ways:

We drive a 15 year old Subaru with 166,000 miles on it.

We don’t buy a lot of clothes and shoes and electronics; our splurges are meals out and travel.

We’re not close to our families, emotionally or physically, so we don’t spend thousands of dollars each year on travel to see them, gifts for them or their children.

I realized — after working at three major daily newspapers and a few magazines — work is just work. Like many others, I’ve also been  bullied in a few workplaces and terminated from a few as well.

That left some bruises.

I enjoy writing. I love telling stories.

But it’s only one part of my life.

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I have many interests and passions, not just the desire to work, make money and become rich, famous, admired.

I’ve become a nationally ranked saber fencer.

I’ve been able to help care for my parents through health crises because I didn’t have to beg an employer for time off.

I’ve been able to help friends as well, like taking a recent day off to get a friend home to Brooklyn from Manhattan after day surgery.

Now that my husband is also full-time freelance, we can take a day or two during the week and just have a long lunch or go for a walk or catch a daytime film.

Jose and I really enjoy one another’s company.

I’d much rather have a day with him, just chatting and hanging out, than making an additional $1,000 to buy…something.

We met and married later in life,  and we have both had terrific, satisfying careers in journalism.

Now our priority is one another, our friends.

Our life.

How about you?

 

Lean this! Many women already feel like pretzels — (maybe bonsai)

By Caitlin Kelly

Are we there yet?

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Every day someone new, usually another highly-educated white HNW woman, is exhorting us to lean in, or lean out, or duck and cover or…something.

Mostly, I just want a martini and a nap.

I hate this barrage of “self-help” books telling other women to lean in, (i.e. work your ass off for a corporate employer and climb that ladder stat!) — or to lean out (bake brownies and say Om!).

Or, even better — from a millionaire who gets writers to fill her website free — on how to thrive.

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Maybe because I grew up in the 1970s, in the era of second-wave feminism, in Toronto. We thought — really, we did! — it would be a hell of of lot better than this by now.

Ms. magazine had just launched and my late step-mother used to dance around the living room singing along to Helen Reddy’s 1972 anthem of female empowerment: I Am Woman:

“I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore…”

From Wikipedia:

In the year that Gloria Steinem‘s Ms. magazine was launched in the US and Cleo in Australia, the song quickly captured the imagination of the burgeoning women’s movement. National Organization for Women founder Betty Friedan was later to write that in 1973, a gala entertainment night in Washington DC at the NOW annual convention closed with the playing of “I Am Woman”. “Suddenly,” she said, “women got out of their seats and started dancing around the hotel ballroom and joining hands in a circle that got larger and larger until maybe a thousand of us were dancing and singing, ‘I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman.’ It was a spontaneous, beautiful expression of the exhilaration we all felt in those years, women really moving as women.”[4]

So we all rocketed out into the world, excited and determined it would all be different now.

 

(Insert bitter, knowing laugh.)

 

Then we grew up.

So I’m weary of this latest panoply of corporate-suck-up advice and endless set of prescriptions — all of it coming from wealthy, educated, powerful and connected women — on how we should live.

I did like this story in Pacific Standard:

I intentionally lean out of my career. A lot. I do this because there are only 24 hours in a day, and when I ask myself, “If I died tomorrow, what would I want people to remember me for?” it isn’t anything I’ve published, any TV appearance I’ve made, or anything like that.

I’d like my son to remember that, almost every morning, I snuggled with him for 15 minutes before we finally got up together. I’d like him to remember that I had the door open and a hug ready for him when he ran home from the school bus, almost every day. I’d like him to remember that I took up the clarinet, and started lessons with him with his teacher, so we could play duets together and so that he could be my secondary teacher. I’d like him to remember all the after-school walks we took to the river. I’d like him to remember how happy I was when he had a snow day and could stay home with me.

I’d like my mate to remember all that, and to remember that I became a gardener, reluctantly at first, and that I did so because he loves planting but hates to weed. I’d like him to remember all the dinner parties with friends I arranged for us. I’d like him to remember the house concerts, like the one last night.

And I fully agree that we need to carefully consider the real economic costs of when to chase (more) income instead of enjoying a less-frenzied private life, non-stop careerism versus time lavished on family, friends or just…sitting still.

The real problem?

This is such a privileged conversation.

You can only “lean out” if you have:

savings; if you and your partner and/or your dependents remain in good health and if your housing costs are free or fixed, (i.e. rent controlled or stabilized or you have a fixed-rate mortgage, all of which rely on luck or a steady income from somewhere. Which is…?)

If you lean out, away from well-paid work, you also need someone else with a reliable, decent income to subsidize or wholly support your reduced paid workload — because fuel, food, medicine, insurance, education, clothing, and specialized skills like dentists, all cost real money.

Not everyone can live in a hut or barter for everything.

And too many women are just worn thin, millions of them working in crappy, dangerous, depressing and exhausting low-wage jobs with no hope of raises or promotions or benefits.

They aren’t wearing Prada and angling for a corner office — but something as simple and unachievable as a steady schedule that actually allows them to plan doctor visits or meet their kids’ teacher(s) or take a class that might propel them out of that enervating low-wage ghetto.

I see little communal concern (Hello, Occupy Wall Street?!), and no shared outrage at massive corporate profits/stagnant hiring/excessive C-suite compensation, and the lowest union membership — 7 percent private, 11 percent public — since the Great Depression.

I don’t think unions are the only solution.

But focusing relentlessly only on our individual needs isn’t going to do much either. Too many workers, too many women, are still getting screwed economically and politically.

How about you?

Which way are you leaning these days?

Balance, Schmalance!

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In a time and place when millions are out of work and others working for minimum wage with no paid sick or vacation days, balance is a joke. Long commutes add an hour to two to three to the workday.

The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, is devoting this week to an interesting discussion of how and where — if at all — workers find a balance between their private life and the demands of their paid work. Says a Montreal mother of two:

I’m not sure the balance is actually working.

Two weeks ago I was wishing I’d get a cold, just a 24 hour virus, so I could get some forced rest. I knew if I just took a sick day I’d end up organizing the storage room. I got my wish on Tuesday. Full fever. Be careful what you ask for.

I know what she means. I ended up, in March 2007, on an IV in the hospital with pneumonia and a temperature of 104. It was painful, exhausting and terrifying; the spot on my lung was so large they thought it might be cancer.

I had been endlessly rewriting a major magazine story when I was asked to go out and cover a speech by Anita Hill for The New York Times, for whom I’ve been freelancing for 20 years. I had been sick for a week or so, and by then could barely hold my head up I was so ill, but needed the money, didn’t want to let down a long-time client — and went.

It took me a full month to regain my strength, napping for two hours to get enough energy to stay awake for the next two. Luckily, I have no kids or pets relying on me and I work from home.

Those three days forever changed my view on work, income and stress. I remain ambitious and want to retire. I live in a very costly part of the world so a lowered income is a problem.

But when I watch the endless stream of chest-thumpers on Facebook — I did this and I did this and I did this! — I sit back and stare at the sky.

I now, by choice, limit my work schedule and stay away from clients who will make me crazy with their insatiable demands, no matter what they pay. As a result, I make less money than I could, maybe than I should, certainly far less than my skills and experience would suggest.

But without my health, I have nothing.

How do you try to tame the demons of too little time and too many tasks?

Where and how do you make time for yourself to be quiet, calm down and re-charge?