Narrow career models and expectations weigh down both women and men

People have a need to create coherent narratives of their personal and professional lives, says sociologist Ingrid Biese, who has investigated high fliers opting out of the rat race.

Articles on people who have opted out of their successful, stressful careers have filled the pages of newspapers in recent years. The focus has been on highly educated people with well-paid and demanding jobs who have discovered their ‘true selves’ and exchanged their hectic lives for a more people-oriented lifestyle with a different pace of work.

According to Ingrid Biese, a postdoctoral researcher at the Swedish School of Social Science, University of Helsinki, the underlying problem relates to the traditional career models that have dominated for decades.

The linear career models leave little room for individual solutions, and people have a very narrow conception of the level of ambition it takes to reach a top-level position: they think it requires a continuous climb up the career ladder in a timely fashion.

“But unlike the career ladder, life is not linear, but cyclical, and there may be times in your life when you want to invest in something else. It doesn’t mean that you lack ambition.”

The common factor uniting the people who opt out of their careers is that they not only feel tired and stressed out, but above all that they see a lack of coherence in their lives.

“People have a need to create a coherent narrative about their personal and professional lives. To thrive, we need to be able to understand who we are and why we do what we do,” says Biese.

Many of her interviewees lost the thread in the narrative of who they are.

A much-debated phenomenon

The issue of people leaving their well-paid jobs was thrust into the spotlight in the US in 2003 when the New York Times published an article by Lisa Belkin,‘The Opt-Out Revolution’, on highly educated women leaving their well-paid jobs. The debate at the time focused on career women and what makes them bow out.

When Ingrid Biese began to explore the phenomenon several years later, she decided to widen the perspective because she was convinced it was important to look at the issue from a social perspective and as a problem related to work, not just in terms of gender roles. Consequently, she has investigated the ‘opting out’ phenomenon among not just women, but also men.

She began to examine the issue by interviewing women with successful careers in Finland and the US who had left their well-paid jobs and chosen another path. Her research also resulted in a book on the subject.

Since 2015, Biese has continued to investigate the topic, but has switched her focus to men surrendering their careers. She has interviewed 29 men from Finland, England and the US who have reached the top or have been strong candidates to do so. Many of them have worked for consultancies, investment banks, law firms or industrial enterprises.

Is it me or the company?

In her research, Biese has been able to show that the process of opting out is generally similar for both men and women. But there are clear differences in how men and women perceive it.

Many women who have successfully climbed the career ladder and subsequently opted out see it as an individual problem and a personal failure. They often say that they found it difficult to combine professional demands with their family life.

“The biggest reason for this may be that it’s not entirely OK for successful women to talk about their children at work. Doing so is easily construed as having split loyalties and perhaps not being ambitious enough. That is why many women don’t talk about the challenges they experience in reconciling their family life with their career, which means they often feel lonely if they are having a tough time.”

In other words, the problem is structural, but deemed individual.

“They often think that other women can cope without difficulty, but ironically all the women I have interviewed say the same thing.”

In contrast, she has not found this ‘there’s something wrong with me’ mindset to the same extent in the men’s narratives she has studied, which have often included organisational criticism instead. For example, the men may react to the management mistreating other employees or think that their company’s values are misguided.

Weighed down by expectations

Despite the progress made in equality, certain traditional expectations still seem to affect men and women.

Women continue to carry a greater responsibility for the family, and the question of combining one’s career with family life arises when women become mothers.

“If you have children, you are expected to be a good mother. It’s worse for a woman to neglect her role as a mother than her role as an employee.

“Consequently, many women cite their children as the reason for opting out of their careers. It is an easier explanation than saying that you are unhappy with your job, that you are discriminated against at work or that you have a lousy boss. No one challenges the child argument. Instead, most people praise these women for being great mothers.”

Men are stressed by money

For their part, men are stressed about finances because they are often expected by society to be the family’s primary breadwinners.

“Many of them think that they might have to return to their old job or find another well-paid job. Many of my interviewees have had a partner with a very well-paid job, but still felt stressed about their salary not being sufficient to support the family,” Biese says.

The men she has interviewed have also experienced external pressure to succeed and have been guided by the expectations of others when they have decided what to study. Many followed in the footsteps of other men in their family. Prestige and a high salary were other important factors in choosing an occupation.

“One man I interviewed left his job at an investment bank and began to work as a coach instead. His parents’ identity was so strongly connected to his professional choices that they had an identity crisis when he left his job!”

People-oriented solutions

Despite the clear differences between their experiences of frustration and between the expectations placed on them, men and women who leave their careers follow a fairly similar path when they opt out.

“A pattern that has emerged in my interviews with both men and women is that the solutions they have created make more room for human relations and the people in their lives. It can mean more time for family or friends, or being there for someone who is ill for example. Sometimes they have also switched to a more people-oriented profession, such as life coaching, nursing or teaching.”

It is important here to emphasise that ‘opting out’ does not necessarily mean quitting work altogether, but working on new terms. Ingrid Biese uses the term ‘opting in’ to highlight the difference. Most people find themselves in a new position with a lower status and a lower salary, but everyone Biese interviewed felt that their process has been successful and that they had made the right decision.

“They have often created professional solutions which allow them to better control what they do and how they do it. In this way, they have successfully gone from an experience of not having control over their lives to being in control.”

Financial assets are not necessarily a requirement for opting out. Most of the people Biese has interviewed have had a very good financial situation, but her interviewees have also included single parents and those who are the main breadwinners in their families. They have simply felt such a strong need to change their lives that they have left their jobs despite the insecurity that it entails.

A romanticised notion of quitting the rat race

When Ingrid Biese meets new people in various social settings and tells them about her job, she always gets a reaction, mostly, “I wish I could opt out too!”

Biese has two explanations for the strong emotions aroused by the phenomenon. First, the reactions reflect the fact that there really is something wrong with working cultures today and many people dream of something different.

Second, people have a romanticised notion of quitting their job and going their own way. Many stories of people leaving their careers and choosing an alternative lifestyle have been written from a rose-tinted perspective. The people featured in such articles have decided to do things like sail around the world, retrain as yoga teachers or realise their dream of opening their own café. But the reality is not always as rosy.

“Not one of the people I have interviewed has found the process easy. After all, the decision is triggered by a crisis. These people have chosen the unknown in favour of the known. And if you have had a successful career, your identity is often strongly connected to your job. So in reality it’s not at all easy or romantic, although the people who have undergone the process ultimately view it very positively.”

Going through the process and feeling like you have found yourself results in such positive emotions that everyone Ingrid Biese has interviewed has defined their process as a success, even if their interpretation may not necessarily be supported by objective definitions of success.

“Research shows that people increasingly wish to create individual and subjective definitions of success. Being successful may mean that you can decide how much and when you work, to be there for someone in your life, or to do meaningful work.”

Hoping for better working cultures and ideals

People often assume that Ingrid Biese wants to encourage them to leave their jobs. But that is not her goal at all. Instead, she hopes for better working cultures in which employees do not feel the need to opt out.

“What a lot of people are looking for is not, in fact, particularly revolutionary. Often, they just wish for a little more control over their lives. It’s not about changing everything, but changing attitudes and mental models, such as what is considered a good way of working.”

New technology provides more freedom for workers, and some companies have more or less overturned the old rules by giving their staff the freedom to choose when and where to work. But most companies are too afraid to do so.

“Many think that if you don’t see people working, how do you know that they are working? However, the fact that the manager sees me sitting in front of my computer doesn’t mean that I’m working.

“We have a very restricted idea of what a good working culture is. We monitor employees’ working hours and use various tools to supervise others. If the manager knows that you’re sitting at your desk, they have done their job.”

Giving staff a bit more freedom can be daunting and difficult at first. But Biese believes that the long-term results can be good.

“More freedom means that the manager must have real contact with the staff, really get to know and trust them – simply put, be a more active leader and communicate more. The increased freedom won’t necessarily make the manager’s life more difficult. Quite the contrary, because it means the manager actually knows what the employees are doing even when they are not physically there.”

Left her own job as a consultant

Ingrid Biese has not only investigated why people with high-powered careers opt out, she also has personal experience of the phenomenon. She was once an ambitious management consultant who gradually began to feel worse and worse in her job.

“I felt awful for a really long time, but didn’t even understand it myself. At the time, I was under so much pressure that I cried in my car every morning on my way to work. I had to let it out somehow, but couldn’t do it at home because it would have scared the kids, and I couldn’t do it at work because that would have been unprofessional.

“When this had continued for a few months, I understood that this wasn’t a normal way for a healthy person to live! I think that was my eureka moment: I understood that I just couldn’t go on like that,” says Biese, a sociologist and postdoctoral researcher at the Swedish School of Social Science, University of Helsinki.

She chose to leave her job as a management consultant and began to pursue an academic career. The process was slow because she first concluded some ongoing projects, while exploring her options in the academic world. Eventually, she began her doctoral studies at an Australian university.

“I had my second identity crisis there when I went from being a successful consultant to a doctoral student with no experience whatsoever. I felt that my skills were worthless until I understood that researchers were keen to cooperate with me because I actually knew a lot about the world they were exploring.”

Naturally enough, she began to investigate ambitious people like herself, who had realised that they no longer wished to climb the career ladder. She quickly noticed that their stories reminded her of her own.

“The narrative method I used meant that I talked as little as possible to avoid putting words in the respondents’ mouth. Sometimes it was difficult to just sit quietly when I recognised myself in so much of what the people were saying, and I felt like blurting out that I understood exactly how they felt. At the same time, it was tough because I felt like I re-experienced my past emotions almost every time.”