the busy trap

An Epidemic of Generalization

The mainstream media has had an awesome couple of weeks of telling us how much we all suck.  First, there was Elizabeth Kolbert pondering why American kids are so spoiled.  Then came Anne-Marie Slaughter laying out for us why women still can’t have it all.  And if you didn’t feel crappy enough because of your spoiled kids and futile, pitiful attempts to have an amazing career and a wonderful family, then you must certainly feel lousy after Tim Kreider chided us all for being busy for the sake of being busy last Sunday.

Those stories went viral, generating discussion and reaction.  What frustrates me is that those articles were held up as truth when they were actually one person’s experience generalized to all of us.

Spoiled Kids

Kolbert’s article compares a study Ochs and Izquierdo did on 32 middle class families in Los Angeles to the helpful, cooperative children of the Matsigenka tribe.  While a six-year-old member of the Matsigenka tribe cooked and cleaned for members of the tribe, an 8-year-old named Ben in LA refused to untie his own shoes, and in example after example, the parents ended up doing things for their children.  Kolbert’s conclusion is that all American parents want their children’s approval and are raising spoiled, entitled children.  I object to that generalization.  If Daniel cannot tie his shoes at 8-years-old, I have done a pretty crappy job as a parent.  The examples used by Ochs and Izquierdo are horrifying, and I cannot believe that the majority of parents reading Kolbert’s article would nod and agree that those scenarios happen in their house.  Thirty-two families from the same city is also a very small sample size and certainly too small to use to generalize to millions of parents and children.  It’s another case of shoddy research or at least misunderstood research generating headlines.

Can’t Have It All

Ms. Slaughter left her dream job as the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department  to return to her university job and her family after only 2 years because she decided her family needed her at home.  I’m not deriding her decision; I object that based on her experience, she pronounces that women can’t have it all and gets to do it from a major outlet.  I don’t even dispute many of her points and recommendations. Slaughter’s article addresses the dearth of women in high-level leadership positions, which isn’t germane to most working women.  And yeah, that’s sort of her point but at the same time, for many women, we’re working hard to survive and taking care of our families. We don’t have the luxury to stop and think about why we aren’t in positions of leadership.

More importantly, what is the definition of “having it all?” At what point do I say I have it all?  At what point would Slaughter conclude that I have it all?  I work full time doing challenging, interesting work.  My paycheck pays our mortgage and other bills. I manage 3 people.  I travel to conferences and around the state for meetings.  I’m fortunate to to have the ability to take my son to doctor appointments, schedule play dates, scope out day cares, play with him at night and on the weekends, read books to him and sing him to sleep.  To me, that’s having it all. If I have a friend who works as an executive assistant or dental hygienist and they are happy with that, then don’t they have it all?  I absolutely, 100% agree that there are a lot of changes to be made to legislation and in the workplace in order to make it easier for men and women to have careers and be the involved parents they want to be, but that’s for any job, not only high-level ones.  I disagree with Slaughter deciding that based on her “all” not working out for her, her “all” is my “all” and impossible to have.

My Fault I’m Busy

And last but not least, Mr. Kreider.  Mr. Kreider can support himself by working a few hours a day.  If he wants to take off for parts unknown or kick up his feet, he can.  And based on his experience, he concludes that the rest of us are manufacturing being busy in order provide “existential reassurance” and meaning to our sad, boring lives.  First of all, I can assure you that I am not making up being busy because the truth is that I don’t like being busy.  Sure, sometimes it’s nice to be busy and have meeting after meeting, obligation after obligation to create some structure to my day or week, but more often, I prefer not being busy.  I love the nights when we have nothing more to do after dinner is eaten and Daniel is in bed than to read or watch mindless tv.  Or sit on the porch and talk.  As with Slaughter’s article, there is a grain of truth in Kreider’s piece in that we could all do with a slower-paced life, but it’s insulting that he accuses us of causing our own problem instead of acknowledging that modern life is incredibly fast-paced and that most of us don’t have the luxury to unplug and work only a few hours a day. Take back your finger wag, please!

Mass Media and Truth Making

I also recognize that you could accuse me of generalizing too based on only my experience.  Fair enough, but that brings us to my second major issue: mass media and truth.  By being published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The New York Times, Kostner, Slaughter and Kreider have the power of traditional media behind them to sanction their points of view.  The challenge to traditional media is exactly why I love blogging and its power.  We get to share our voice and challenge these sanctioned points of view.  We get to demonstrate that there is not one truth but many truths. My truth, your truth, someone else’s truth. I believe blogging has the power to take down the Truth Makers of traditional media.

Or at least I did believe that.  I’m worried that the potential blogging has is in jeopardy.  I have a brain crush on Bon Stewart, and she has been doing some amazing thinking on identity, truth-making and culture in the Digital Age.  We’ve chatted a bit about whether traditional media is reasserting control over us through monetization and audience-building trends in blogging.  Please read her post today on produsage and think about the potential harm Kostner’s, Slaughter’s and Kreider’s articles pose when communication is only one way.

What do you think?  Is this another case of KeAnne going off her rocker again?