What the Opt-Out Generation Means Longer-TermBy Gini Dietrich

In yesterday’s The Three Things, Lindsay Bell-Wheeler linked to a New York Times article about the opt-out generation of women who quit their careers to raise their families and work inside the home.

It made both of our blood boil. Hers because of the women they portrayed (upper-class, country club, 9,000 square foot homes, highly-educated) who have (or had) husbands who made a good enough living for them to “opt out” of the workforce yet maintain their style of living…and are now complaining because they have to move into a 2,500 square foot townhome because of a divorce.

You can read what she wrote in the blog post and in the comments…and get her riled up more.

I agree with all of those things and more.

A Personal Story

I hope my mom won’t mind my telling this story.

When I was 17, my parents split up. I have three younger brothers and a younger sister (I also have a half-brother, but he didn’t fit into this equation). My dad worked two jobs nearly my entire life and he was never home. When he was home, he was the disciplinarian.

My mom, on the other hand, was with us 24/7. She cooked, she cleaned, she made our clothes, she scheduled our activities, she did the shopping, she made us do our homework…she raised us.

She never worked outside of the home. Not until she got divorced. But, by then, she’d been out of the workforce nearly 20 years and didn’t have desirable skills to an employer.

She’s highly educated, highly intelligent, and extremely talented. And the workforce required she start all over. Those 20 years meant nothing on a resume. To the workforce, she was a brand new college graduate, but with baggage.

As well, when faced with divorce and custody of five children (well, four and a half as I was off to college on a full-ride academic scholarship), she didn’t have her own credit as all of the bills – the utilities, the car, the mortgage – were in my dad’s name.

And the best job she could get? She worked herself up to manager of a retail store a few blocks from our home so we could hang out there after school.

She worked herself nearly to death and it wasn’t enough. She couldn’t make ends meet. She was starting from scratch with lots of mouths to feed. Eventually my dad got custody of my siblings and he moved them to Michigan.

It nearly killed my mom. Literally.

Long-Term Investment in Your Career

I’m reading Lean In (more on that when I finish it) and one of the things Sheryl Sandberg talks about is to think about the long-term effects of the opt-out generation. What happens when you leave your job to raise your family.

The examples she uses aren’t unlike what my mom and some of my friends are going through now: A divorce, a spouse dies, a spouse is injured and can no longer work.

Lots of women decide to leave the workforce because their salaries barely cover childcare when they are born.

It makes sense, right? If your salary goes to childcare, what’s the point in working and being away from your kids, particularly before they go to school?

But what we don’t think about is the salary increases and bonuses we receive during those years. So your salary may barely cover childcare right now, but three years from now, you’ll be making more money. Perhaps you also receive bonuses or incentives. More money added to that. Suddenly the long-term investment in your career doesn’t look so bad.

Of course, none of us think anything bad will happen to us. We’re not going to get divorced. Our spouse isn’t going to get sick. Our spouse isn’t going to be hurt so badly he or she can’t work. That stuff happens to other people.

Opt-Out Generation: Invest in You

I’m not advocating everyone make the same choices I would make. I’m certainly not advocating everyone run out and find themselves jobs.

But what I am advocating is doing things that invest in you in the long-term. Not in your kids. Not in your spouse. In you.

Put some of the bills in your name, particularly the ones that are hard to get without any credit – the utilities, the insurance – and make sure your mortgage has both of your names on it.

Keep your skills fresh by working part-time, even if it’s from home. Technology offers an amazing opportunity for many of us to raise our families and bring in a paycheck. As well, workplaces are becoming more flexible, giving both parents the opportunity to share responsibilities for sick kids or after school activities.

Find ways to keep your resume updated through volunteer activities that mean something to an employer.

This way, the opt-out generation has a way to opt back in. Maybe you’ll be lucky and never need it. Or maybe you’ll find yourself in need of something more when they kids go off to college. Or maybe something more drastic happens and you have no choice.

Whatever it happens to be, don’t lose the opportunity to invest in you.

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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