Comment on this blog: “I think we are all screwed”

One of the most interesting people I’ve interviewed over the years, Lafayette County’s Penelope Trunk, has bad news:

Here’s the problem men have today: They understand how bad it feels to be raised by a dad who is never around.

There’s a generation of boys who didn’t eat dinner with their dad. Only saw their dad on the weekend. Changed schools five times so their dad could relocate to get the best job, over and over again.

Those boys are grown up now, and they are dads. And they don’t want to be like their dad. They want something different.

We have unrealistic expectations for fathers.

So more men are leaving the workforce than ever before. But when men stay home, they are largely disrespected as incompetent breadwinners. And the men who choose work all the time are largely disrespected as incompetent parents. If they try to do a little of both, they are not particular standouts in either. (I’m struck by the art world’s depiction of this problem. For example, Nathan Sawaya‘s sculpture pictured above, and a comic strip from Zen Pencils that depicts the problem.)

Men were raised to be standouts. But no one told them that most good jobs require long hours and high risk which are choices most people don’t want to take.

The other challenge to being a standout breadwinner is that you almost always need a big city. Most people imagine themselves raising their kids in a metropolitan area. But the truth is that it costs a lot of money.

NYC, SF and LA require $150K/year in order to raise two kids in a middle-class life. Some people will disagree with me, but none of those disagreeing will have two kids over the age of six in one of those cities. This is true in the suburbs of places like Boston or Chicago as well. Sure, there are cheap suburbs, but there are not good schools in cheap suburbs.

Most men will not make enough money to afford living in the right kind of metropolitan area. The number of men who will make $150K after the age of 35 is tiny. First of all, if you want to be making $150K after 40 you need to be making it at age 35. Which means you need to be clearing $100K at age 30. (And places like Singapore, Tokyo, and Bermuda don’t count. Because you won’t be able to make that much back in the US. Your market is artificially inflated.) …

We have unrealistic expectations for husbands.

So let’s say you are 35 and you’re ready to get married. You have a three choices:

1. You earn enough to support a family in a metropolitan area. (You need to reliably earn $150K for the next 15 years – unlikely.)

2. You split household labor because you are splitting breadwinner duties. (This typically goes very poorly because women are never happy with the division. Really. )

3. You move to a small town where your career is limited but the cost of living is low. (Negotiate this before you get married.)

The problem is that men don’t like to hear that these are their choices. So men pretend that their salary will continue to rise in their 30s at the same pace it rose in their 20s.

But that approach fails because most women want to stay home with kids.

But let’s say that’s not true for you.

Let’s say you want two high-powered careers. You’ll need tons of childcare. Which means you’ll need to spend almost all your money on childcare. And your wife will struggle to maintain her pre-baby salary because she can’t stop thinking about kids when she’s at work. So you will be very stretched for cash. And stressed, and that’s not great because having a baby kills a marriage anyway, even without the added stress from neither spouse focusing on the baby. (This is why only 9% of mothers even attempt having a high-powered career.)

Now let’s say you have two scaled-back careers. Here’s the problem with that: It’s nearly impossible for people over 40 maintain employment with scaled-back careers. You can’t compete with someone in their early 30s who is going full throttle. They have the same experience as you but more ambition.

Here’s the biggest minefield: Men don’t like when their wives earn more than they do, and women don’t like outearning their husbands either. You can say you and your spouse are different, but the odds would be stacked against you. Because even if one of you is different, it would be really unlikely that both of you are different.

There is not a contemporary template that works for most men.

I fortunately did not have the experience of being “raised by a dad who is never around.” (My parents celebrate their 53rd wedding anniversary today.) The number of children with absent fathers isn’t shrinking, however. It’s one thing for parents to get married, have children, and then divorce; it’s another when the first step is skipped entirely and children never, or rarely, see their fathers. Everyone needs role models, and more than one per gender.

Two reader comments stand out, the first of which is this blog’s headline:

I think we are all screwed. I don’t think the pressure of unrealistic expectation is unique to men and fathers. These exact same thoughts and discussions are ones that I’ve had as a 30 year old woman and mom. What is it about humans today that there is the expectation of perfection in all aspects of your life. Get a good job, push push push up the ladder, don’t slack the young guns are at your heels, make a marriage work, raise amazing kids, don’t age, and try to look happy doing it. Seriously, it’s exhausting. I know I’m tired.

To which came this response:

I think what’s changed is feminism, frankly. Much as I admire intelligent women with real jobs, it messes up the whole family dynamic. The woman now feels she has to hold down the high-powered job or she’s betraying all that women have worked for. The guy feels he should be doing more at home with the kids even if he doesn’t want to. They are both worried about how their jobs compare to one another.

They are also both worried about falling out of the “educated power couple” group. They absolutely don’t want to be in the “middle class, boring job, low ambition” group. That’s seen as low class, and doomed. The feeling is that between automation and globalization, all those “flyover country blue collar” types are going to suffer terribly. Don’t be in that group!

To which came this response:

What’s happening: the middle income group and middle income jobs are really, really shrinking, so more and more people have to work crazy hours to try to get to the top just to make a living wage, since lower paid jobs are part time and poverty level. One middle income job no longer pays enough to raise a family in an expensive area (but even those jobs are more concentrated in expensive areas). And job security isn’t what it once was, so you can’t plan on a long career with one company, you have to remain competitive and be prepared to move on. We have to live *in* this system as individuals, and figure out how to raise families in a time of insecurity and wage stagnation, but it’s not just a cultural phenomenon and it’s not just the result of individual choices.

Another comment suggests avoiding the corporate world entirely and …

I often advise people with enough talent and experience to start their own business. While risky, it is perhaps less risky than staying in the corporate world nowadays. And, there is more potential to create a “portable” business that does not have to stay in an expensive metro area.

To which Trunk said …

Yes, I agree. Starting your own company is one of the best solutions to the problem. But it definitely falls into the high risk category that most people aren’t willing to do. Most people just don’t have the stomach for that sort of risk.

On top of that, I coach so many people who want to start their own company, but they don’t have an idea. For most people coming up with a viable idea for a company is nearly impossible.

(Or, alternatively, they can come up with the idea, but can’t handle the business basics, such as day-to-day accounting.)

Read this, and you wonder how anyone can be optimistic about our future. Of course, things can get worse.

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