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Being 'Single And Off The Fast Track'


Switching gears now, there's been a lot of talk this year about whether women can have it all, the high powered career and the loving relationship with a partner and the kids. But, now, some single people, particularly women, it seems, are saying, not so fast, married people. They would also like to have more flexibility outside of the office.

Work and Family columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Sue Shellenbarger, has written about this. She joins us now, along with Anne Marie Bowler. She is a partner at the law firm, Gabay-Rafiy and Bowler, and she was featured in the article, "Single and Stepping Off the Fast Track," and they're both with us now.

Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

SUE SHELLENBARGER: Great to be with you, Michel.

ANNE MARIE BOWLER: Great to be here.

MARTIN: Sue, how did you notice this trend of people stepping off the fast track to kind of reorder their lives? How did you notice that?

SHELLENBARGER: It became a conversation topic among editors and journalists at my paper after we had a conference on women in the economy last spring when we noticed that a large number of single women, women without children were articulating the same work life balance concerns that marrieds were. We decided to take a deeper look and analyze just how heartfelt this was.

And we found that, you know, among singles, the concerns about not enough time for self, personal management, social life were just about the same as among marrieds who were stepping off the fast track.

MARTIN: Anne Marie, that sounds like how you were quoted in the piece. You were working at a big, respected law firm in New York and you like the work, but what?

BOWLER: But I wanted to also live a life. I mean, I wanted that balance. I enjoy my work. I enjoy the challenges of it, but, you know, it was twofold. One, I wanted to practice law on a different level where I had more control of the type of law I was practicing. And, two, I wanted to do that on my own terms, being able to do that while also being able to have a life and whatever that meant to me.

MARTIN: Did you feel - you can see where, if you had kids or if you were taking care of somebody - you're a caregiver for a parent, even - you could sort of walk into the office and say, I need to reorder my life to do X, Y and Z. But, to tell yourself that, was it hard being single to give yourself permission to step off the fast track because of your own desires?

BOWLER: Yeah. I think so. I think, as a single person, we don't have that hard stop where you have to get home to get to the kids or those family obligations. So it's not like a socially accepted thing to do, is to say, I'm leaving work because I want to leave work, because I want to enjoy parts of my life outside of work. I want to train for a triathlon, I want to study Italian, I want to pursue these different avenues, so I think I have to implement boundaries in order to keep to it because it's easy to just say, why can't I just keep working or work late hours when I don't have somebody to get home to or nobody else is counting on me, per se?

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and we're talking about singles stepping off the fast track with lawyer Anne Marie Bowler - that's who was speaking just now - and the Wall Street Journal's Sue Shellenbarger. She wrote a column about this trend for her Work and Family column.

Sue, we are primarily talking about women, but you interviewed men who had the same desire. But I wanted to ask, you know, is it that women are just more vocal about this or that women just feel freer to admit this? What's your sense of this?

SHELLENBARGER: My experience is women are the canaries in the coal mine. They speak up far more quickly than men about these issues, but there were a sizeable number of men, especially younger men, who tend to be more outspoken about this among the emailers in response to the story.

MARTIN: I must mention that one of the things that surprised me was how outspoken people were about their need just to maintain their household, do laundry, get to the grocery store, manage their finances and things of that sort. And those things do take a lot of time and it was surprising to me that people were willing to admit that. What about you, Sue? In your reporting, was there something that really jumped out at you?

SHELLENBARGER: Fascinating. I realize even I have that bias that working parents have the excuse that trumps all others. When I learned, based on research at the University of Texas at Arlington, that two out of three singles are providing significant financial assistance to family or friends. One in four are providing direct care to family and friends. Singles have enormous off-work responsibilities and we have a kind of myopia as a society about the importance of parenting. Of course, it's very important, but we help each other in other ways, as well. Non-relatives do so.

MARTIN: One of the things I did find fascinating was that the people who you interviewed seemed to agree that the workplace somehow is very respectful of parenting and I think a lot of parents would disagree about that. In fact, I know that they would. So I'm very interested. Do most of the people you interviewed - and, Anne Marie, I'd love to hear from you on this - feel that married people actually get - or parents, let's say - parents get favored treatment in the workplace? And is there any evidence to support that fact, Sue?

SHELLENBARGER: There's anecdotal evidence and it varies widely by employer. There are great, enlightened employers who have work-life policies, as opposed to work-family policies and they understand that one person's writing poetry or scaling Mount Everest is just as important to that person as filling in for, you know - on child care at home or attending the parent-teacher conference, or caring for an elderly relative. Everybody has parents.

So I think many employers realize that these personal concerns and the need to relieve stress, too, cut across the board.

MARTIN: Anne Marie, you have a very interesting focus group in your law firm because your partner is married and has children, and so you have a - your own, like, focus group of two. Do you feel that there's like a hidden bias, even within your group, that her stuff is more important than your stuff or not?

BOWLER: You know, within our own group, I don't think so. When we started our practice, she actually had two children and had her third while I think we were in our second or third year of the practice. But I think it varies. What perspective does the employer have? You know, reading The Atlantic article, they give an example of a marathon runner, you know, running at 5:00 A.M. and doing all of these exercise regimes which are very stringent before coming to work and then a working mom coming to work after juggling her kids, getting them off to school, getting them dressed, getting them fed, getting their lunches prepared.

And the perspective of the author of the article was that when the parent comes to work, the employer doesn't respect that, but respects the marathon runner and the author is married with children. And, as a single person, I saw it from the opposite perspective.

MARTIN: And you're talking about that article in The Atlantic that got so much attention - in fact, we talked about it on this program - by Princeton Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, who's a former high-ranking official at the State Department.

BOWLER: Yes, that's right. I think that it depends, based on your own life experience.

MARTIN: At the end of the day, Anne Marie, are you glad that you stepped off the treadmill, as it were? I mean, you're still practicing. You're a partner. You own your own business. Was it worth it?

BOWLER: Definitely, 100 percent. You know, I'm creating my life by the choices that I make. I have the freedom to do that. I wouldn't have had that freedom working in a large firm and being a cog in the wheel and trying to succeed at something I wasn't sure I really wanted.

MARTIN: Sue Shellenbarger, before we let you go, you certainly struck a chord. Many people gave, you said, very detailed reactions of their own circumstances and why they decided to make a change, But you do have to assume that, for some people, the recession is part of it, that they were downsized, their hours were cut and they just decided to intentionally reshape their lives.

Let's say that, once the economy gets moving again, is this a permanent cultural change or is there additional reporting that you'd like to do here to see whether people are really changing the way they think about their work?

SHELLENBARGER: I think there's a huge story to be told behind the lifestyle, cultural, emotional reasons that people choose to jump off the fast track. We know they do. McKinsey studies for the Wall Street Journal, studies at the Center for Work Life Policy have proven that women, in particular, leave at mid-career. We don't know what they do after that. I would love to see us really analyze what's wrong with the workplace culture at these most successful companies that makes people feel they have to leave in midstream.

MARTIN: Sue Shellenbarger is the Work and Family columnist for the Wall Street Journal. She joined us from KLCC in Eugene, Oregon. Anne Marie Bowler is one of the people profiled in Sue Shellenbarger's piece that we're talking about. She's a partner at the law firm, Gabay-Rafiy and Bowler, which she founded, obviously, and she joined us from our bureau in New York.

Ladies, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

BOWLER: Thank you, Michel.

SHELLENBARGER: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.