A Marriage Manual for the Next Generation

For many people, the Covid pandemic has been an eighteen-month interruption. Survive it, and get back to work. For those born after 1979, it may prove to have been a new beginning. Women and men born in the twenty-first century may have found themselves beginning their lives together in the midst of yet another historic turning point.

That’s the argument Claudia Goldin advances in Career and Family: Women’s Century-long Journey toward Equity (Princeton, 2021). As a reader who has been engaged as a practitioner in both career and family for many years, I aver that this is no ordinary book. What does greedy work have to do with it?  And why is the work “greedy,” instead of “demanding” or “important?” Good question, but that is getting ahead of the story.

Goldin, a distinguished historian of the role of women in the American economy, begins her account in 1963, when Betty Friedan wrote a book about college-educated women who were frustrated as stay-at-home moms.  Their problem, Friedan wrote, “has no name.” The Feminine Mystique caught the beginnings of a second wave of feminism that continues with puissant force today.  Meanwhile, Goldin continues, a new “problem with no name” has arisen

 Now, more than ever, couples of all stripes are struggling to balance employment and family, their work lives and home lives.  As a nation, we are collectively waking up to the importance of caregiving, to its value, for the present and future generations. We are starting to fully realize its cost in terms of lost income,  flattened careers, and trade-offs between couples (heterosexual and same sex), as well as the particularly strenuous demands on single mothers and fathers.  These realizations predated the pandemic but have been brought into sharp focus by it.

A University of  Chicago-trained economist; the first woman tenured by Harvard’s economics department; author of five  important books, including, with her partner, Harvard labor economist Lawrence Katz, The Race between Education and Technology (Harvard Belknap, 2010); recipient of an impressive garland of honors, among them the Nemmers award in economics; a former president of the American Economic Association:  Goldin has written a chatty, readable sequel to Friedan, destined  itself to become a paperback best-seller – all the more persuasive because it is rooted in the work of hundreds of other labor economists and economic historians over the years.  Granted, Goldin is expert in the history of gender only in the United States; other nations will compile stories of their own.  .

To begin with, Goldin distinguishes among the experiences of five roughly-defined generations of college-educated American women since the beginning of the twentieth century.  Each cohort merits a chapter. The experiences of gay women were especially hard to pin down over the years, given changing norms.

In “Passing the Baton,” Goldin characterizes the first group, women born between 1878-97, as having had to choose between raising families and pursuing careers.  Even the briefest biographies of the lives culled from Notable American Women make interesting reading: Jeannette Rankin, Helen Keller, Margaret Sanger, Katharine McCormick, Pearl Buck, Katharine White, Sadie Alexander, Frances Perkins. But most of that first generation of college women never became more prominent than as presidents of the League of Women Voters or the Garden Club.  They were mothers and grandmothers the rest of their lives.

In “A Fork in the Road,” her account of the generation born between 1898 and 1923,  Goldin dwells on 75-year-old Margaret Reid, whom she frequently passes at the library as a graduate student at Chicago, where Reid had earned a PhD in in economics  in 1934. (They never spoke; Goldin, a student of Robert Fogel, was working on slavery then.)  Otherwise, this second generation was dominated by a pattern of jobs, then family. The notable of this generation tend to be actresses – Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck – sometimes playing roles modeled on real-world careers, as when Hepburn played a world-roving journalist resembling Dorothy Thompson in Woman of the Year.  

In “The Bridge Group,” Goldin discusses the generation born between 1924-1943, who raised families first and then found jobs – or didn’t find jobs. She begins by describing what it was like to read Mary McCarthy’s novel, The Group (in a paper-bag cover), as a seventeen-year-old commuting from home in East Queens to a summer job in Greenwich Village.  It was a glimpse of her parents’ lives – the dark cloud of the Great Depression that hung over w US in the Thirties, the hiring bars and marriage bar that turned college-educated women out of the work-force at the first hint of second income.

“The Crossroads with Betty Friedan” is about the Fifties and the television shows, such as “I Love Lucy,” “The Honeymooners,” “Leave It to Beaver,” and “Father Knows Best” that, amid other provocations, led Betty Friedan to famously ask, “Is that all there is?” Between the college graduation class of 1957 and the class of 1961, Goldin finds, in an enormous survey by the Women’s Bureau of the US Labor Department, an inflection point.  The winds shift, the mood changes. Women in small numbers begin to return to careers after their children are grown:  Jeane Kirkpatrick, Erma Bombeck, Phyllis Schafly, Janet Napolitano, and Goldin’s own mother, who became a successful elementary school principal. Friedan had been right, looking backwards, Goldin concludes, but wrong about what was about to happen.

In “The Quiet Revolution,” members of the generation born between 1944-1957 set out to pursue careers and then, perhaps, form families. The going is hard but they keep at it.  The scene is set with a gag from the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” in 1972.  Mary is leaving her childhood home with her father, on her way to her job as a television news reporter.  He mother calls out, “Remember to take your pill, dear.” Father and daughter both reply, “I will.”  Father scowls an embarrassed double-take. The show’s theme song concludes, “You’re going to make it after all.” The far-reaching consequences of the advent of dependable birth control for women’s new choices are thoroughly explored.  This is, after all, Goldin’s own generation.

“Assisting the Revolution,” about the generation born between 1958-78, is introduced by a recitation of the various roles played by “Saturday Night Live” star Tina Fey – comedian, actor, writer.  Group Five had an easier time of it. They were admitted in increasing numbers to professional and graduate schools. They achieved parity with men in colleges and surpassed them in numbers.  They threw themselves into careers. “But they had learned from their  Group Four older sisters that the path to career must leave room for family, as deferral could lead to no children,” Golden writes. So they married more carefully and earlier, chose softer career paths, or froze their eggs.  Life had become more complicated.

In her final chapters – “Mind the Gap,” “The Lawyer and the Pharmacist,” and “On Call” – Goldin tackles the knotty problem.  The gender earnings gap has persisted over fifty years, despite the enormous changes that have taken place.  She explores the many different possible explanations, before concluding that the difference stems s from the need in two-career families for flexibility – and the decision, most often by women, to be on-call, ready to leave the office for home.  Children get sick, pipes break, school close for vacation, the baby-sitter leaves town.

The good news is that the terms of relationships are negotiable, not between equity-seeking partners, but with their employers as well. The offer of parental leave for fathers is only the most obvious example. Professional firms in many industries are addicted to the charrette – a furious round of last-minute collaborative work or competition to meet a deadline. Such customs can be given a name and reduced.  Firms need to make a profit, it is true, but the name of the beast, the eighty-hour week, is “greedy work.”

It is up the members of the sixth group, their spouses and employers, to further work out the terms of this deal.  The most intimate discussions in the way ahear will occur within and among families. Then come board rooms, labor negotiations, mass media, social media, and politics.  Even in its hardcover edition, Career and Family is a bargain. I am going home to start to assemble another photograph album – grandparents, parents, sibs, girlfriends, wife, children, and grandchildren – this one to be an annotated family album.

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