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When Did Not Wanting to 'Lean In' Become So Taboo?

Thirty has been described as the beginning of two "lost decades" for women at work: options narrow, confidence wanes, we're overtaken by men. But admitting you're not happy in a job feels like it's become the most taboo thing of all.
March 12, 2015, 4:00pm

Sheryl Sandberg. Screenshot via.

The whole "having it all" thing has always felt like something that didn't concern me. Not because I have it all, ("all" in this case meaning a career which you need fancy clothes for, a relationship with someone you truly like, and a couple of cherubic kids) but because I'm not old enough to think about it. I'm too young to have that conversation, or face that dilemma. I'm too young to buy Red magazine.

Except, I'm not.


At 29, I might have 40 years left of my working life, if I'm lucky, but probably only one or two in which to decide if my current career is the one I want to fill those decades. Not to mention the to-have-or-not-to-have kids thing. Dramatic? Maybe. Perhaps I've got ages to work it out. Still, when you're squaring up to 30 and still shop in Tesco's reduced aisle for your lunch, there's no denying it's a reasonable age to take stock, to pose the question: "Is it time I bought a salad spinner?" Or, "Am I moving, even shuffling, in the direction I want to be?"

In an interview with The Sunday Times recently, Helen Fraser, Chief Executive of the Girl's Day School Trust, described turning 30 as the beginning of two "lost decades" for women at work, when career options narrow and men overtake them on the way to claim that seat in the boardroom. And no, they won't save you one. Not even if you ask nicely.

Fraser, as well as research carried out by Oxford University, puts women's alleged floundering in the workplace down to a lack of confidence. "What a lot of women find in their 20s is that their confidence gradually erodes," Fraser said. "A young woman of 25 who has been in a job for two years may start to think, Maybe they don't think I'm that good, because no one has told her she is good, while the young man at the next desk is likely to be thinking, I'm doing fine, because no one has told him he isn't."


It's reasoning supported by Owen Radahan, a careers counsellor whose clients largely number women in high-powered city jobs. "Women in their early 20s are beginning to look at their careers and question where they want to go and where they want to succeed," he told me. "When they've been in those careers for seven or eight years and are approaching 30, they are reassessing what they want from their lives."

"Clients come to me because of confidence issues, but that's largely because of barriers put against them," he continued. "Men are expected to move up the ladder more so than women, so they have to fight harder and sometimes their attitude can be, 'I'm getting a bit tired of this, why do I have to do all the pushing? Why do I have to work twice as hard as my male colleagues.'"

But while we might lack the confidence to get ahead at work, or to successfully challenge our male counterparts, do we also lack the confidence to admit that maybe, y'know, it's not the right job at all?

How easy is it to say that the career you've spent the best part of your 20s getting up at 6.30 AM every day for, crying in the toilets for, sacrificing nights out with your friends, or any kind of extra-curricular hobby for, maybe isn't the thing you want to be doing?

Quitting a job without another one to go to is a frightening prospect, especially in the current economic climate. Because, although unemployment is falling, it is doing so more slowly than in 2013, suggesting that people are putting the brakes on hiring. Even more terrifying is leaving a job that not only means you're left selling unused scented candles on eBay to pay rent at the age of 30, but that you're stripped of the identity you'd created for yourself with the job you've just turned your back on.


"I had my meltdown maybe a bit early, at 27, and eventually quit my job," Emma, a successful journalist, told me. "Even though I was utterly miserable, everyone—apart from my husband—told me not to do it. They couldn't understand why I would give up working at a national newspaper for no other reason than that I was unhappy."

It's curious, the whole work-is-more-important-than-your-happiness-and-you're-lucky-to-have-a-prestigious-job-in-the-first-place thing. You'd think your nearest and dearest would put your mental wellbeing before the status of a job, only, several women I spoke to found that, when they did finally decide to leave the jobs that had been making them unhappy, it was—if not explicitly—frowned upon.

"People used to ask about my job," says Emma. "Then, when I went freelance, people stopped asking. I wasn't interesting anymore. I was totally defined by my job, in the eyes of other people at least."


See, however much we think we might have moved on from the oft-quoted "societal pressures" on women, that we're beyond those discussions now, we do still care. It's just that the focus might have shifted. The conversation, among city-dwelling, 2:1-wielding 20-somethings at least, is less interested in those women who choose not to have children (which isn't to say they don't still suffer from stigmatization), and more in those who shun the gold-paved Career Path for a more simple job.


"After university I felt pressured to do something career-wise, when actually I think I would have been happy to just bum around and work at HMV forever," says Lucy, 30. "But it's seen as a disappointment or a failure to not be succeeding in every way. If you're not Lorraine Candy, then you haven't made it."

Few would argue that trying to have a career (and get paid) is an easy ride. And yet, choosing not to have a career seems to be the new social taboo.

How easy is it to say that the career you've spent the best part of your 20s getting up at 6.30 AM every day for, crying in the toilets for, sacrificing nights out with your friends, or any kind of extra-curricular hobby for, maybe isn't the thing you want to be doing?

Few questions generate such awkwardness so quickly than the seemingly banal, "So what do you do?" when you haven't got an impressive answer. Bar is OK—if you're in the studio with your band in the day. Cafe's fine—because you're writing your novel in the evening. But working in hospitality, retail, or healthcare because you want to? Because you can actually leave on time and see your friends for more than an hour at a time? Because you don't run the risk of getting an ulcer from stress at age 30? Don't be an idiot.

In this post-American Idol world, where we're all encouraged to "follow our dreams," however ridiculous or unattainable everyone quietly knows them to be, it's easier than ever to feel like a failure. Especially as a woman. Not only should we be making a name for ourselves in a respectable job (ideally one that will get us recognition beyond the confines of the office's four walls), but we should be loving it, too. And when we've got Sheryl Sandberg talking on behalf of women everywhere, urging us all to Lean In, it makes it harder than ever to say, "You know what, I don't think I want all this."


"Part of our challenge in an age of social media is to not compare. Rather than where everyone else expects you to be, where do you want to be?" says Radahan—something that rings true with many female journalist friends of similar age. When you see your peers tweeting their big, impressive interviews, or weekend supplement bylines, it's hard not to look at your own catalogue of decent commissions and not feel a sting, to not think, Christ, I should be pushing myself harder.

But maybe, for some, accepting that you've got as far as you can is fine. There are women within this "crunch time" age bracket who thrive on that day-to-day push toward career fulfillment, toward reaching an inner equilibrium that says, "Yep, I've kind of made it," and that's brilliant. But every woman is different. And as Radahan says, for those who are floundering, "looking at our abilities quite honestly and realizing, 'this is as far as I can go,'" might be prudent. "I feel very strongly that we should be happy at work and not stressed," he says.

Life doesn't suddenly stop when you decide to leave a job, or change tack and do something completely different for a bit. You don't become a different, lesser person overnight.

People come to cities like London and New York to claim the career they've been promised by their university, that English Literature degree they paid upward of $45,000 for. It's only later, when the novelty of lining up (and paying) to get into an establishment that says it's a bar but looks suspiciously like a squat has worn off, and you can no longer physically get through a day at work on an hour's sleep and a McFlurry (seriously: how can anyone over the age of 24 do that anymore?), that you realize everyone you "left behind" in your home town might have had it right in the first place.

"My [home] friends are, hands down, happier than those in London," says Emma. "Pretty much everyone I know who lives in the city are in crisis, but my home friends talk about anything other than work when we go out." To many women I know, not talking about work is unfathomable. And it's all-too-easy to look down on those who chose not to move to London and try and make it in the status-heavy world of the media, for example. To assume that their reference points and conversations may not be as rich as ours. Because, what could be as edifying as, say, a job in the media? "I'll admit, maybe I looked down on them a few years ago," admits Emma, "but now I envy their freedom."


Ah, freedom. "They're not being judged by how well they're doing and are living really fulfilled lives."

Sarah, 29, agrees. "Sometimes I think that, if I still have my friends and my health, I'd be just as happy working as a florist as I would as an editor," she says, which is probably why she's just quit her job in fashion and bought a round-the-world ticket with the money that was meant for a mortgage. "When I think about coming home and having no work, I'm scared," she says. "But who knows what's going to happen?"

She's right. Life doesn't suddenly stop when you decide to leave a job, or change tack and do something completely different for a bit. You don't become a different, lesser person overnight. Admitting that the coveted position you've spent years of student debt, overdraft fees, and shittily-paid junior roles grafting your way toward doesn't make you happy isn't giving up. If you have learned skills, you can go back to them.

Life is one massive, rolling contract of uncertainty and if, as women, we don't have the confidence to listen to ourselves when we are unhappy, that feels like the biggest failure of all.

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