never married, over forty, a little bitter

Category: jobs

vicious circles

Carbone and Cahn describe these developments in terms of the concept of “marriage markets.” Many scholars from all political and philosophical persuasions object to the very idea of treating intimate relationships as something that should ever be the product of calculation or exchange. Yet, most also agree that supply and demand affect “price.” Carbone and Cahn add that sex ratio imbalances produce virtuous and vicious cycles that influence expectations, alter behavior, and ultimately transform cultural practices. Sociologists Marcia Guttentag and Paul Secord demonstrated in the eighties, in an influential book on sex ratios, Too Many Women? The Sex Ratio Question, that relationships are in fact the product of a market. If the men outnumbered the women in a given group, Guttentag and Secord argued, men competed among each other to land the “best” women. Women in turn tend to select for some mix of worldly success and good behavior, so an excess of men tends to produce “virtuous cycles” in which men compete to satisfy women by working hard, remaining faithful, and investing in their children. The fact that men outnumber women among high earners eager to pair with each other, Carbone and Cahn argue, provides an explanation for why the marriage rates at the top have remained relatively stable and why divorce rates remain relatively low.

What happens if women outnumber men? The men could seek out higher status women and the women might compete to satisfy the men in a similar fashion to what happens in a market where men outnumber women. It turns out that isn’t what happens: men and women don’t react in the same ways when they are outnumbered in a given marriage market. Instead, men prefer more relationships than committed unions with partners who might outshine them, and the women become jaded by the men’s behavior. In the face of persistent disappointment with male behavior, their standards for an acceptable husband increase and they, too, become more reluctant to marry or to commit to a long-term relationship. The result tends to be what some would term a “vicious circle,” that is, a cultural shift toward greater promiscuity, more gender distrust, greater investment in women’s income opportunities and less in men’s, and fewer stable long term relationships.


At the end, they note that America has not yet created the infrastructure for the post-industrial era that would make the relationship between home and family more seamless and that, in an era of inequality, American companies have built in greater instability in employment that also undermines family stability, damaging any efforts to rebuild the home-family bridges. They offer a deceptively simple solution to diverging family patterns: fix economic inequality. They also recommend fixing the pathways to adulthood with proposals ranging from better pregnancy support to early childhood education through college and employment.


A whole new field of research is beginning to look into why overwhelm matters… entire presentations laid out the inverse relationship of increasing role overload and declining birth rates all over the world, which means many societies will soon have a worrisome surplus of old people and fewer young workers to support them. In the United States, the fertility rate began falling when the economic crisis hit in 2008, but it had already dropped among those with a college education to a “crisis” level. Steven Philip Kramer, a professor of strategy at the National Defense University, warns that countries that fail to address gender equity, redefine traditional families, reform immigration, and pass government policies that help men and women more easily combine work and family “do so at their own peril.”


As I pored over the time studies searching to understand why the feeling of being overwhelmed was on the rise, one central truth emerged clearly: When women began working in a man’s world, their lives changed completely. Yet workplace cultures, government policies, and cultural attitudes, by and large, act as though it is, or should be, 1950 in Middle America: Men work. Women take care of home and hearth. Fathers provide. A good mother is always available to her children. But obviously, life isn’t so sharply divided anymore. And until attitudes, however unconscious, catch up with the way we really live our lives, the overwhelm will swirl on. Nowhere is that disconnect between expectations and reality more apparent than when a women has a child. Time studies find that a mother, especially one who works outside the home for pay, is among the most time-poor humans on the planet, especially single mothers, weighted down not only by role overload but also what sociologists call “task density”– the intense responsibility she bears and the multitude of jobs she performs in each of those roles.

— Brigid Schulte, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, pp. 24-25


Absolutely not! It not stupid to walk out on a pension. What is stupid is staying in a job that you don’t love, when you no longer need the money.

All of this hinges on the concept of “Enough”. It’s a tricky one to grasp if the television has done its job in raising you to be insatiable. But if you work through your own bullet points like the ones above, and you’ve got enough, then dude, trust me, you can go ahead and quit.

When you take early retirement, you are almost always walking away from a whole bunch of money. Salary. Benefits. Bonuses. Stock options. I’ve often recounted how I’ve “lost” least a million dollars of potential income since quitting in 2005. Even now, I am forced to turn down more work opportunities almost every week, and Mrs. Money Mustache does the same. Early retirees seem to have a way of attracting unwanted work opportunities, almost like the casual man who walks into a pub with no desire to hit on women. The employers can almost smell your freedom, and it makes them want to offer you additional money. But unless the work offered is your true love, you will gracefully decline.

We are deliberately sacrificing extra savings and security in our distant futures, for continued free time right now. We’re throwing away the equivalent of many good pensions. Oooo. Big deal.

To gain the ability to quit your job, you have to learn to lose your addiction to artificial security. You may think you’re building up additional financial strength, but really you’re just indulging a psychological weakness.

More money beyond the reasonable guidelines noted above does not make your life better. But spending an extra 10 years working a mundane job, setting the alarm clock and droning away on the conference calls because you are afraid to quit does make your life worse, unless that is truly what you were born to do.

[OTOH, in terms of finding employment as a retiree:

the curious

See, commencement speakers are the outliers — the most successful, interesting people that colleges can find — and their experiences are the most inspirational but also the least realistic. Even worse, they tend to be far too willing to dish out the craziest, worst advice, simply because it somehow worked for them. “Follow your dreams” and “live your passions” are insanely unhelpful tips when the bills need paying or the rent is almost due. Invariably, commencement speakers tend to be the lucky few, the ones who followed their dreams and still managed to land on their feet: Most of us won’t become Steve Jobs or Neil Gaiman, regardless of how hard we try or how much passion we might hold. It’s far more likely to get stuck working as a waiter or bartender, or on some other dead-end career path. Most people will have to choose between “doing what they love,” and pursuing the more mundane promise of a stable paycheck and a promising career path. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making the latter choice; in fact, I’d usually recommend it.

But for all of those young graduates who look out today and see a limitless horizon of excitement and opportunity, I hate to be the one to say it, but you probably won’t get there. And I’ve often wondered if, perhaps, those of us who ended up waiting tables or working the dead-end office jobs would be better suited to offering real advice to new graduates, advice tailored toward the majority, those who won’t attain the loftiest heights of their dreams — but still must find meaning and value in our imperfect world. And for those people, the rest of us, my advice is quite simple: Stay curious and keep learning.

Your job might be terrible, it might be horribly boring and physically draining like mine was. You might work in a terrifying corporate culture that stifles creativity and punishes independent thinking. You might be forced to watch round after round of layoffs and budget cuts, wondering if and when the ax will fall on you. And of course, there are plenty of other terrible ways that your life can turn sideways, too.

Stay curious. Keep learning.


I’ve always valued learning intrinsically, as an end unto itself. And more and more, that seems like the key. Curiosity provides life with wonder and excitement beyond our crummy, quotidian routines. A passion for learning, an unqualified commitment to pursuing your interests — and seeking new ones — will carry you through the good times and bad times, the rich times and poor times, the miserable times and happy ones.

the plan

I’m starting to think of myself as on the “ten years more or less” plan. Meaning, I’ll probably retire in ten years (more or less) and so am settling in for at least that long. I suppose I could try for an even higher level position in five years, but that would entail moving again and starting over, and I’ll be close to fifty at that point. And I’ll have moved up the pay scale and accumulated significant vacation hours, so I’ll have even more incentive to stay put.

So here I am. There are several reasons I’ve been struggling. Moving again in my forties– not easy. Taking a high-level post that requires me to be more guarded, political, and circumspect. Spending more time with higher-ups in other fields that generally attract more conventional/conservative personalities (and being the only childless/single one amongst them). Living in a region that is more conventional and less culturally interesting than the places I’ve lived in the last two decades. Working with colleagues who have been living in this region and working for my employer for fifteen years and upwards. And on top of all this, going through a midlife identity crisis.

It’s interesting how “done” I was with L.A. when I left. I was fascinated by the region the first time I moved here and spent tons of time exploring and reading about it. Now I find myself disinterested, although I do some small amount of research on the new area in which I’m living.

I’ve continued to enjoy being a hermit. In all honesty, it’s made my friendships much easier, as I have zero expectations of people. When they call, it’s nice, but I never feel angry when they don’t, as my “retreat time” from socializing has become my greatest solace.

I do have plans almost every week to get out and socialize and a trip planned over Christmas (yes, I’m doing it my way this year) that will put me in close contact with people. So, we’ll see. A decade is certainly a good chunk of time to give things my best and then to move on if nothing sticks.

the untethering

For Moen, the issue is redefining the culture of the workplace to fit the changing times. “We’re using concepts that were developed in the 1950s when you were tethered to a phone or desk or assembly line,” she argues, “and that’s simply not the case now. And the workforce also isn’t the same. It used to be the average full-time worker was paired with a full-time homemaker, and now neither men nor women have full-time homemakers supporting them. We need to get up to date by redesigning how we work in terms of the clock.”

the scenery

(1) What does the title of your book, ‘Non-Stop Inertia’, refer to?

It represents a perpetual sort of crisis that people seem to be in, in everyday life. There’s this sense of always having to look for the next thing, having to sort everything out – this sort of endless circulating, networking, competing, and always passing through somewhere on the way to somewhere else. It’s sort of a vicious circle. But this is presented as ‘how it is’ or a self-imposed situation – that’s quite important, I think.

The title draws attention to the contradiction in that – in that we’re in a loop of anxiety and we’re not really getting anywhere. There’s a sort of frenetic activity and we’re not really achieving
anything at all. And there’s this sense of freedom all the time, but is it really freedom? Has this sort of mobility and availability and stuff – has it actually made us free in the way that we’re told that it has?

And I suppose I’m thinking as well, in the title, that there’s the implication that if we were to stop in some way, we could see the scenery clearly and see each other clearly, and that the scenery wouldn’t be blurred. We might be able to see an exit, or a way of improving things.


(3) Why have people accepted a society of non-stop inertia? Why aren’t they resisting it?

It’s clear that certain factors have been put together to stop people resisting it. You sort of feel helpless, that you can’t resist, that you have to go along, that you have to go with the flow. There’s a lot behind that. As an individual – in the face of the dismantling of unions, insecurity, the wage gap, etc. – you’ve got few resources to draw on. I think that all contributes to it. Now, obviously, with mobile devices and stuff like that people are encouraged to exist in their own little bubble and connections are very difficult to establish. But that push towards individualisation and insecurity has a lot to do with it.


(6) There’s also a psychological dimension to the term ‘precarity’ as well, isn’t there? In the book you say that it describes a fear of losing one’s job (because one needs the money from it) and a simultaneous desire to see one’s job end (because one’s job is boring).

Yes. Again, going back to what I was saying before about why resistance is difficult: You need the job to carry on and you also don’t want it to carry on. It’s having to carry that sort of contradiction around in your head in whatever tasks you’re doing at work. There’s that fear and all other stuff as well – like housing, the welfare system, etc. – which feeds into that fear. Yes, definitely, there’s a psychological element going on there.


(10) Another theoretical term you discuss in your exploration of the contemporary workplace is ‘emotional labour’. Could you explain what this is?

It’s an idea that Arlie Russell Hochschild was exploring in the 1970s. She introduced this phrase relating to the work involved in producing the product of yourself as a commodity – the smile and the appearance of customer service and all that sort of stuff. Also involved in emotional labour is the working up of a sort of synthetic enthusiasm for something, such as a product, which feeds into sales and jobs like that.

In the book, I look at how the term is applicable now, and, as with precarity, I think it seems to have spread a lot. In one sense there’s what I call remote emotional labour, which is virtual media work, advertising, marketing, etc., and call centres. I’m also thinking about – again from a personal point of view – how Hochschild’s traditional ideas of emotional labour – of selling yourself and of selling an experience to the customer – could be extended to the “jobseeker” and worker as well. You’re selling yourself to your manager and your boss through a performance of enthusiasm and immersion in whatever tasks you’re doing – looking as if you’re giving 110% and all that crap. That applies whether you’re in immaterial labour or in what would be old-fashioned manual labour: in a warehouse or something. It’s still there. It’s still a background to it – this sense that you have to appear to not just be doing what you’re paid for, but enjoying it and feeling that it’s the right thing for you.

As Hochschild also mentions, the effects of selling yourself starts to affect yourself and your identity. The commodified self starts to re-shape the real self. You come to believe your cover story, so to speak. Again, going back to what I was saying earlier about resistance – having to sell yourself has a huge impact on people, especially when you add a sense of self-failure and self-blame onto it, which helps people get into the part that they are playing.


Though our capacity to decide to do nothing – or do something else – is severely curtailed by the creeping sense of insecurity in the modern workplace. All employees are disposable, jobs feel precarious. Employees are required to constantly sell themselves, smile, improve their skills, prove their worth. And we do this for the fear of unemployment is too strong. Unfulfilling low paid work benefits greatly from this very climate of precarity that exists in work life. The apparent scarcity of jobs means individuals start to feel anxious even about the loss of a job that is far beneath their experience and qualifications.

What is produced is a continual feeling of insecurity – an insecurity that feeds on the centrality of work to our understanding of what it is to live and be human. Unemployment is a scary abyss of watching the Jeremy Kyle Show and sleeping til noon. Flexible work has not provided freedom but a constant need to market oneself to the next prospective buyer. And we are all commodities selling our teamwork skills and managerial experience.

And it does alarm me how normalised this mode of existence has become. Stood crammed into the tube on the way to work in this wondrous capital city of ours, a morning never passes when I don’t wonder how, why and what we are doing here squashed together, not talking, barely breathing, headphones plugged in, brain switched off, when we could be climbing Mount Everest or sailing around the world in a boat or learning Japanese or starting a jazz band or eating croissants or doing yoga in some shala in South India….


To create a convincing shopgirl identity, then, involved detaching my feminist self and replacing it with a smiley face. I was nudged into these norms of being, sometimes explicitly: “You need to smile more”. At other times I picked up cues from my environment that told me acting a certain way would produce bigger sales, which in turn would lead to financial rewards and positive encouragement from my peers. Actively managing one’s emotions and surveilling one’s self for bad feelings became a daily practice necessary to work productively and efficiently. What results is not a self devoid of emotion but a self full of emotions deemed appropriate, in this case “happy” emotions. However, these emotions were often quite distinct from how I actually felt on a day-to-day basis.


Happiness is increasingly a project of self-management, and not only for the shopgirl. The government’s interest in measuring our well-being and the growth of organisations such as Action for Happiness have reinforced the belief that happiness is an attainable object that we all deserve to pursue in the name of autonomy and self-empowerment. But whose happiness are we working towards? And is happiness even something we should desire? Happiness is often attached to particular objects, like getting married, having children, a steady job and a mortgage. An unmarried, childless, irregularly employed woman may not sit so comfortably in this vision of happiness. The legacy of the female hysteric and the persistence of depression diagnoses in women suggests that happiness is not always an easy object for women to attain. Just as the shopgirl is trained into conducting herself appropriately, to silence our unhappiness is to become complicit in validating a way of life that might be contrary to our ideals as feminists.

So what would a happy feminist future look like? I suggest it should involve the exploration of a form of happiness that did not work towards certain objects, that did not silence itself, that did not seek to avoid or overcome unhappy feelings. It might mean being a troublemaker, ruffling feathers and brushing people the wrong way. It might mean seeing depression not necessarily as pathological but in some cases as a form of resistance to conventional norms. It might mean encouraging the shopgirl to stop silencing her bad feelings and salvage her unhappiness as a political statement. It means claiming happiness as a feminist issue.


There’s a type of employee that does well in my field and probably every field– socially adept but reserved, even-keeled, nicely but conservatively dressed, diligent, creative but within established practices, accepting of the status quo. I call this person “Gwendolyn” based on an actual person I worked with in the past. I have to constantly remind myself “to be more Gwendolyn,” even though I’m constitutionally moodier, more emotionally expressive, more rebellious, and more intellectually inclined. Gwendolyn often doesn’t have to work or leaves the workforce early on to have kids. Her male counterpart, Glen, is in it for the long haul and manages to keep up the mask. Most successful men are “Glens,” as I’m learning from my colleagues.

For numerous reasons that I won’t expand on here, this past week brought the “Gwendolyn” lesson home again. Hard. I was starting to loosen up a bit, but I gotta reel it in. The answer to how I’m doing should always be “good,” and conversation amongst colleagues should stay within the realm of local restaurants I’ve enjoyed. I can be sympathetic to the problems of employees underneath me, but that sympathy only goes one way. It’s just too problematic and confusing for everyone otherwise.

I have also come to the conclusion that I’m stuck for the long haul and that my dream career of “writer” is but a pipe dream. A pipe dream for quite a lot of people, it seems, as evidenced by the comments here:

The “reeling in” required by my job is extra difficult because I don’t have other avenues in which to “let it out.” A woman I know who used to be employed at my workplace had a coffee buddy to vent with; I do not. The dawning realization of the lonely road ahead caused a tightness in my chest and pains in my neck that I’ve spent this weekend working out.

I realized that, for all my low feelings in the past, I’ve maintained a pretty good attitude about my situation thus far. I don’t drink or smoke too much to cope; I always manage to get out of bed in the mornings. I consistently exercise to improve my moods, and I “put myself out there.”

This past week I allowed myself a truly bad attitude for the first time in a while. I wallowed in simmering anger and resentment over the fact that no matter my attitude, nothing ever changes and nothing likely ever will and except for the breaks I’ve taken here and there the decades of my life have all looked pretty much the same and the only thing I have to look forward to is retirement.

Having this bad attitude, however, made me feel like crap physically. So even though a good attitude won’t necessarily bring good things into my life, it does make me feel better, which is no small thing.

In reality, I know I am in a better situation than a lot of people, perhaps most, and have much less to feel angry about. So back to making the best of it.