The Myth That Paid Work = Personal Fulfillment

One of second-wave feminism’s big things was that women should be able to have interests outside of homemaking and childcare, specifically that women should be able to have jobs and careers regardless of whether they are wives or mothers.

And that’s important. Women are multi-faceted beings, not domestic automatons.

But in some cases, many feminists — mainly white feminists — have reacted so strongly to the cult of domesticity that many of us, consciously or not, now conflate paid labor with empowerment and fulfillment.

And that’s a problem because as people, women find fulfillment in many different aspects of life. Any simplistic or one-size-fits-all formula for fulfillment won’t work.

Real-World Implications

We see this issue in the way that many women talk about re-entering the workforce. “I stayed home and took care of the kids while they grew up,” you’ve probably heard a woman say. “My husband did his thing, and now it’s my turn.”

The assumption that someone who works for pay is personally fulfilled worries me because it’s just not realistic. And such a widespread disconnect from reality can hurt people.

First, this attitude minimizes or erases the struggles that low-income workers face. Women in these situations are worried about buying food, not using their work to feel good about themselves and their goals. Betty Friedan’s findings about dissatisfaction among economically comfortable housewives are important, but the whole discussion is inherently privileged.

Second, the vast majority of humans work primarily for money and wouldn’t continue working if said jobs didn’t provide stability. If you treat the people in your life who have full-time paid labor — your husband, your wife, your friends — as though their primary motivation is their own fulfillment, they’ll probably resent you for not acknowledging their struggles or the sacrifices they’ve made.

Finally, if you rely on paid labor as your main source of fulfillment, you’re likely setting yourself up for disappointment. Because most of having a job is doing what other people say so that they give you money.

Sure, your work can bring you some fulfillment and ideally does. But most people also draw strength and happiness from things like relationships, hobbies, spirituality, and community service. So yes, you probably want to pursue something other than childcare and marriage. Get a hobby, serve others, something. But the same thing goes for people with workforce jobs. Paid labor isn’t a magic bullet that will make you happy.

Unconscious Ideologies

I didn’t used to think I’d absorbed this “paid labor = personal fulfillment” ideology. I don’t think that women who stay home with their kids are automatically oppressed, and I don’t think that women who work full-time are either. I don’t think I can tell you just with a glance whether any given family’s division of labor is fair or whether the family members are happy. I realize that both of my parents made sacrifices for our family.

But working myself has helped me realize that I tied career sacrifices too strongly to family obligations. Despite acknowledging that fulfillment comes from more than just work, I didn’t realize how many trade-offs I’d need to make even as a person without kids.

Wage growth is slower and harder-earned than I expected. And more than college-me expected, I’ve had to balance my desire for work that I enjoy with jobs that pay enough to support my health needs and retirement savings. Past me could have told you that jobs that people want to do regardless of pay don’t often pay as much as less appealing ones, but I somehow still had the mostly unconscious thought that with hard work and few enough obligations, I could have everything I wanted in a job.

Current me doesn’t think past me was especially realistic or aware of the impact of economic privilege on the job market.

What about you? To what extent do you view paid labor as a path to fulfillment? How have your ideas changed over time?


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