Burnout

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Yesterday I finally made time to read this excellent article on burnout, and it was well worth the long read.  Anne Helen Petersen is observant and strikingly perceptive in her assessment of how Millennials have become the burnout generation.  We work hard, have endless side-hustles, have it drilled into us that we must find work that we are passionate about that also pays the bills, all amidst the fallout from an economic downturn that will likely stunt us for the rest of our lives.  Oh, and don’t forget, we need to look good doing all this on the ‘Gram.  I’m exhausted just typing all that.

While I don’t share her exact malaise in terms of the small daily errands, so much of life these days just feels hard.  I commute for over 3 hours every day, work hard at what should be my dream job where I get paid chronically not enough, serve on the board of a nonprofit, act as committee chair in a professional organization, and no, I haven’t chosen a dentist on our “new” (as of four years ago) dental plan, because who has time to sift through dozens of providers to find someone I am not afraid will advise me to get fillings I don’t need?  The whopping hour and a half of “down time” I have when I get home is devoted to cobbling together some sort of dinner, feeding my pets and walking the dogs, tidying the house, doing an errand or tow, and then I get to relax… oh, wait.  No, actually I don’t.  I crash in bed and try vainly to push past my anxiety get a full 8 hours of sleep before hauling myself out of bed to go the gym before I go to work like someone who has it together, what ever “it” is.

We are the first generation in a long time to actually have it worse than our parents, but the meritocracy of the American Dream has been repeated to us so many times, that we think if we just work harder, longer, better, then we’ll finally get ahead.  So we work more hours at the entry-level jobs we took that we were overqualified for, stay tethered to our phones in case our bosses need something, pursue our side-hustles because of course the gig economy means more opportunities (!) … and we are burning out.  Hello, burnout generation.

I’m not sure what the answer is.  Maybe awareness will at least help mitigate the mental burnout load.  Financial constraints and the feelings of futility that accompany them will certainly not go away with some internal reflection.  But I am hopeful that “thinking about life, and what joy and meaning we can derive not just from optimizing it, but living it,” might be a way forward.  All I can do is try.  Maybe even hustle a little.

On goals…

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Me and my scuffed sneakers on a gorgeous tile floor — Barcelona, Spain.

A chat with a friend last month got me thinking long and hard about goals.  Goals — those things we had all throughout our growing-up years, shimmering ahead to work towards, keeping us moving ever-forward.  A week or so prior to our talk, I realized that hovering here in my mid-thirties, goals are conspicuously absent.  I mean, I have the vague desire to travel as much as possible, to succeed at work, to surround myself with people I love and trust… but those big goals I had outlining my paths over the last three+ decades?  Conspicuously.  Absent.

This worried me.  My school years were full of both immediate and longer-term goals.  Learn to ride my bike.  Get straight A’s.  Become section leader in band.  Pass that year’s Advanced Placement exams.  Get into a good college.  Graduate with honors.  Get into a good grad school.  Get an advanced degree.  Get married after getting my degree.  Find a job.  Find a job in my field.  Find a full-time job in my field that would allow me to do the very adult thing of saving for retirement.  The realization that I didn’t have an immediate goal hovering out there… bothered me.  I wondered if I had gotten less ambitious.  If perhaps I was less driven than I had been.  That possibility rattled me as much as the lack of a goal, to be honest.  Being smart and driven were things I felt were part of my identity.  If I wasn’t, then what was I?

(To be clear, I do have some “goals” in the back of my mind, but they are the kind that are on autopilot.  Pay off my student loans in X number of years.  Keep saving for retirement, that pie-in-the-sky happening that may not ever materialize for my generation.)

As my friend and I chatted, she reminded me of the plethora of things I am doing right now that I should be proud of, and I am so immensely grateful for her reminders.  It helped me find a little perspective, but it also made me wonder: are we focusing so hard on setting goals that we are missing the joys of those we have successfully achieved?  To be honest, I am not sure I ever have stopped to enjoy mine.  What a sobering realization.

This past weekend I had very little desire to do much of anything.  I felt guilty napping the hours away, but a small part of me did realize that there is a season for everything, and there is an ebb and flow to life.  We need idle times to give productive ones their verve and satisfaction, just like we need seasons of striving and seasons of reaping what we’ve sown.  That seems to be my big lesson recently in terms of goals: that I can be a person rather than a perpetual motion machine, and that I can (and should!) enjoy the fruits of my labors from time to time.  Otherwise, what is the point?

On women, money, and value…

Claire Cain Miller’s article on our failure to find value in work performed by women has been on my mind lately, even two years after it was originally published.  Why is it that we fail to find women — and by extension, the work that they do — valuable?  Just think about the rhetoric involved: in discussing breast cancer, we’re encouraged to “save the tatas.”  That’s cute and all, but what about the women attached to those breasts?  And consider discussions around sexual assault: we hear appeals from men who try to frame their perspective as uniquely feminist, because they are “fathers of daughters.”  Men are asked to think of how they’d feel “if it was their sister.”  What about thinking of women simply as people?  As human beings?  As individuals who have the right to safety and respect in and of themselves, regardless of if or how they are related to men?  In the same way that a woman seems to only be valuable in the ways she is related to or benefits a man, work done by women is similarly undervalued.

The “pay gap” women experience is well-documented.  As of 2017, women earn a median 81.8% of what men do.  And we should be careful to acknowledge that many women experience that pay gap much more deeply than others: median earnings for black women was only 67.7%, and Hispanic women a mere 62.2% of what white men earn.  And even though there has been increased awareness of this issue, progress towards equality has made only small strides at best.

Research has shown that there is a great deal more to the pay gap between women and men than women being paid less for equal roles and work.  In fact, it has been shown that work and professions considered “feminine” are, in fact, valued less in our society.

“…there was substantial evidence that employers placed a lower value on work done by women. It’s not that women are always picking lesser things in terms of skill and importance… [it’s] just that the employers are deciding to pay it less.”

“Computer programming, for instance, used to be a relatively menial role done by women. But when male programmers began to outnumber female ones, the job began paying more and gained prestige.”

Similarly, doctors in the U.S. are among the highest paid professions, but in Russia, where it is considered “women’s work,” doctors and other medical professionals are among the lowest paid professions.  While there is an overabundance of doctors in the workforce, I think it is clear that does not entirely account for the dismally low wages.  The majority of doctors are women, so therefore the work must not be valuable.

“…even though they require about the same amount of training as the American doctor… medical practice is stereotyped as a caring vocation ‘naturally suited‘ to women, [which puts it at] a second-class level in the Soviet psyche.”

As far as personal experience, I work at a heritage institution.  I often do similar coding work as other information technology professionals.  But you’d better believe that coding work done under the more “feminine” title of librarian gets a lot less pay — and regard — than a programmer or data engineer.

The patriarchal structure of our society has brought us to a staggering place: women’s work is not valued because women are seen to have little value.  When laid bare this way, it is hard not to be shocked.  So how can we change?  It is a complex and multilayered issue, one that clearly cannot be solved in a day.  Perceptions need to change.  Privileges need to be recognized and acknowledged.  And perhaps the more we are aware, the more we can push back against what has become the status quo.

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Sign in hallway, OC Women’s March 2017

 

On women, money, and shame…

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Last week I read an excellent article in Harper’s Bazaar about the culture of shame that still surrounds women and the money they spend on… well… basically anything that brings them pleasure.  Read it and ponder.  It resonated deeply with me, as I have become more and more aware this in my own life over the last several months.

I began musing over the fact that for years I have enjoyed nice accessories — handbags in particular, but also shoes or the occasional pretty wallet.  It is my one thing I splurge on, but thanks to the intense judgement of women and how they spend their money, I realize now that my enjoyment of them has consistently been tainted by the perception that I have been judged by others for that enjoyment.  In some ways, it it very easy to dismiss that feeling as me “just being sensitive” and “caring too much what others think.”  However, I think that kind of dismissal is an insidious form of gaslighting that ignores the real issue: women are consistently shamed for anything that brings them pleasure, whether it is sex, food, jewelry, a handbag, or even just a few minutes of time to relax.  The stigma attached to female pleasure — that it is decadent, unnecessary, overly indulgent, materialistic, or any number of other negative adjectives — is very real, with very real ramifications.  Jennifer Wright hit the issue square on with her observation that “monitoring what a woman spends her money on represents a new, sophisticated way of infantilizing women and reminding them that they’re too silly to know what is good for them.”

While I knew I was uncomfortable when people commented on my handbags, whether it was an offhand compliment or an observation that I must have quite a collection, I was not aware of how much I had internalized this cultural insistence on shame.  Spending money on myself was somehow shameful.  Everything must have utility attached, or it is egregiously indulgent.  A compliment as innocuous as “cute jacket!” might come my way, and I would reply how warm it was, because heaven forbid I just think it was pretty, or even worse, think I looked pretty in it.  Then I would be wasteful AND vain.  And overly self-indulgent.  And a drain on my husband and our household.  Clearly.

Nothing has crystallized this double standard of men and women and the perception of the money they spend than the recent experience of buying a new (to us) car a couple months ago.  My husband and I were both excited, but while he told friends and colleagues about it delightedly, I found I was embarrassed to even mention it to my closest friends.  Now I know exactly why that is: because it is socially acceptable for a man to spend money for enjoyment; for women, it is anathema.  Never mind that we had very practical reasons for our decision; a nicer car means high-fives for a man, and assumptions about gold-digging or materialism for a woman.  Rich or poor, women cannot seem to escape the toxic message that they need to enjoy less, take up less space, streamline their spending, take pleasure in less.

“If you can afford it, and it brings you a bit of joy, there is no reason to feel ashamed,” Wright tells us.  While it will be a long road until I can fully live this way, knowledge and working towards better is a good place to start.  As women we can rein in the ingrained habit of judging each other — and the even deeper habit of judging ourselves — one day at a time.