A woman's work ... sometimes sucks, too

A new poll finds that most females hate their jobs. But wait, isn't that true of both sexes?

Published September 9, 2009 10:17AM (EDT)

Labor Day signals the end of summer, the time when kids go back to school and our bosses tell us to stop putting in time-off requests already and buckle down for the new fall business strategies. And thus the day after Labor Day is the perfect moment to release a study that says most ladies don’t want to hang around an office in the first place.

Tuesday's New York Daily News opens with a poll of 4,000 women conducted by Woman’s Day and AOL Living that claims 67 percent of women would change their jobs “in a heartbeat.” Another 79 percent say “no way” would they want their children to follow in their footsteps. Speaking of the children, 57 percent of women said they would prefer to quit working and stay home full-time. Most women -- 63 percent -- said they considered their job “just a paycheck” but even more -- 69 percent -- said they considered that paycheck too small (only 6 percent of women said they were overpaid). The Daily News doesn’t draw any conclusions from the survey, but with numbers like these, it’s hard not to think, “Holy feminist backlash! Women totally want to quit their jobs and go back to the kitchen!”

Internet polls tend to have a self-selecting audience, and one can imagine that this particular poll may have an unusual number of respondents who fall into the category of “people who Web surf during work hours because they are so fucking bored at their day job.” But even so, I don’t find these numbers that surprising. More important, I don’t think one would find a whole lot of difference in a survey of all Americans, women and men, on their job satisfaction -- with the major caveat that few pollsters would ask men to consider if they’d rather stay home with their children. Seriously, nation: At the end of a three-day weekend to celebrate your daily labor, how many of you woke up Tuesday morning with a spring in your step, ready and eager to get back to your fulfilling, terribly important job? (Me, I woke up regretting all that beer with my barbecue, only to discover that the most important tool in my worker’s toolbox -- my laptop -- is mysteriously on the fritz. As a result, this post is brought to you by a lifelong Mac user unhappily slogging through Windows. Let’s raise a cheer to the writing life!)

I’m not knocking employment here, nor do I mean to suggest that there aren’t many people out there who, thanks to hard work and good fortune, fall into the category of the enviable few who have figured out a way to be paid well enough for work they love. But it doesn’t take a lot of sleuthing to find many, many people of both genders whose day jobs fall somewhere on the spectrum between boring to excruciating; who do work they loathe or merely tolerate for the paycheck; who would be happy to change their jobs “in a heartbeat.” Does anyone remember those gray-flannel-suited suburban dads of yore coming off the commuter train, crowing about how happy and fulfilled they were after a long day at the office? Hell, no. The pre-feminist, Betty Friedan cliché had the bored housewife popping diet pills while her husband would come home zonked from the demands of the office, in need of the paper, a recliner and a strong martini.

In one of my favorite essays of last summer, Sandra Tsing Loh pointed out that while we like to say that the family traps women in a cycle of repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks, those same words may as well describe the average American work day -- whether one is pushing paper, making auto parts, or, to quote, as she did, Rob Scheider’s “SNL” skit, “makin’ kahpies!” Poking around the Internet, I found a list of the happiest and unhappiest jobs, according to a survey conducted by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center since 1972. Apparently, if you want to love your work, you should consider becoming a member of the clergy, a firefighter, an author, or a special-ed teacher. Your day is more likely to suck if you go into bartending, waiting tables or retail. Among the worst jobs, according to respondents, were those traditionally held by men -- roofing, manual labor, and freight and stock handlers.

Having worked my share of seemingly boring, soul-crushing jobs -- call-center at a corporate bank, editing the phone book -- I’ll say that it helps keep the depression at bay when you believe that, at the end of the day, your work somehow matters. But sometimes even doing work that I allegedly “love” -- in my case, writing -- has stressed me the hell out, precisely because everything about it does seem to matter. On days like those, I’d think longingly of how great it would be to just make a few copies. Apparently the same thought has occurred to Dahlia Lithwick, one of my all-time favorite writers, who responded to Katie Roiphe’s piece, in which she claimed to prefer spending time with her newborn to her work as a writer, by saying that perhaps Roiphe was just “drunk on not working.” Lithwick admitted she dreaded returning to work after her maternity leave, but added that she’d felt precisely the same dread upon returning to work after vacationing in Israel. “Whether you take time off to have a baby, to undergo surgery, or to remodel your house, the act of dropping out of the work world for awhile has very real consequences; chief among them being that you stop caring about work so much ... Suddenly the deadlines and bylines don’t feel all that important.”

As a fan of Dahlia Lithwick, I thank her very much for having returned from watching sunsets in Israel to regale us with more witty and incisive commentary. But who among us didn’t come back from vacation wishing we had a few more days to loll in the sun reading novels or chatting with friends or building a deck? Who among us can’t come up “in a heartbeat” with other ways we’d rather earn a paycheck? But here’s the thing: Whatever it is we make our “work” soon enough begins to feel like, well, work. My own mother decided early to make taking care of her children and her home her primary job description, and for 40 years and counting, that’s what she did. As a kid, I would frequently hear her inform my father than her work hours continued through every weekend, evening and family vacation. And now that he’s retired, she often tells me that she's ready to retire, too.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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