Career, family, and happiness- choose two

Pretty much that.

In which a Telly writer asks why the story of PIMCO investment chief Mohamed El-Erian's decision to quit his job to be with his family was such a huge deal:
I do hope you’re sitting down. A story has broken which caused its main protagonist to state: “If I had known that there would be this media circus, I would've done a lot of things differently.” Forget Isis and a flaming Middle East….a man has talked about quitting his job to be a parent. Dah.Dah.Dah!

Now before you stop reading because I’ve totally undermined the premise of my own ramblings, this is a big deal, and not - as I presumed upon reading the story this morning - because time-travel has been invented and we’re reading this in the 1950s.

It’s a big, irritating, stupid deal because women quit their jobs every single day because they feel the weight of parental guilt; they commonly leave jobs they love because they’re collapsing with the exhaustion of running a house and keeping husbands and bosses (relatively) happy. They are flat out from knowing which kids need which PE kit on which days of the week and which ones are being bullied and which ones are posting naked selfies online. They are quitting jobs – even though they need the money – because ‘having it all’ has become an ironic slogan of noughties naivety.

And in the middle of this meltdown along comes a 56-year-old man, Mohamed El-Erian, who thanks to his daughter’s awesome guilt-trip has a Damascene conversion because his “need to be a good father was greater than his need to be a good investor”. Oh yes – I forgot to mention that bit: when he made this historical decision he was the head of a $1.9 trillion bond business (Pimco, the world's biggest), living in a Brangelina-style LA mansion with a pool, tennis courts and an army of staff. He made $100 million in 2011 alone. Gee, it must have been so hard to make that call… [Didact: Actually, I suspect it was very difficult, for reasons I'll outline below.] 
Had this been the heart-breaking tale of a single-father on the verge of poverty who left his cleaning job to spend time with his 10-year-old daughter who does homework by candle-light whilst surviving on dry corn-flakes, I’d have been slightly more moved (and waiting for Kay Mellor to write an ITV drama out of it), but the depiction of Mohamed El-Erian as making some sort of radical sacrifice is at best bizarre and at worst pernicious. 
It contains the assumption that super-wealthy men are somehow more virile, more masculine and couldn’t possibly leave the thrusting world of global banking to do the school-run. [Didact: Anyone who says this has clearly never seen the insane schedule of meetings and conference calls that senior executives have to deal with.] Ask any parent – whether they hoover up carpets or spare financial assets – and they will tell you that parenting well is tougher than any job outside the home. Negotiating commissions on a $50million deal is a piece of p*** compared to getting a determined 10-year-old to clean her teeth. Coincidentally, it was that very situation which tipped El-Erian over the edge: “About a year ago,” he wrote: “I asked my daughter several times to do something - brush her teeth, I think it was - with no success. I reminded her that it was not so long ago that she would have immediately responded, and I wouldn’t have had to ask her multiple times; she would have known from my tone of voice that I was serious. She asked me to wait a minute, went to her room and came back with a piece of paper. It was a list that she had compiled of her important events and activities that I had missed due to work commitments. Talk about a wake-up call. The list contained 22 items, from her first day at school and first soccer match of the season to a parent-teacher meeting and a Halloween parade. And the school year wasn’t yet over.I felt awful and got defensive: I had a good excuse for each missed event! Travel, important meetings, an urgent phone call, sudden to-dos…”
As is unfortunately becoming endemic among Telegraph writers, Ms. Turner seems to think that men and women are more or less interchangeable, and that therefore it is no big deal to talk about dads who quit their jobs to spend more time with their families, given that mums do it all the time.

To argue this is to think that men and women are also interchangeable as breadwinners within families. That is most assuredly not the case. In most families, even in today's decadent and collapsing West, the father is the breadwinner and spends most of his time out of the home, working; the mother stays at home to raise the kids.

There are, of course, exceptions- particularly if both parents happen to work in the financial services industry and live in an expensive city, like, say, New York, where it is practically required that both parents work full-time in order to afford the basics. (Personally I think you'd have to have a few screws loose to want to raise a child in Manhattan, and most of the people that I know who have done this have not exactly done anything to persuade me otherwise.)

It is much easier for a mother to walk away from her job to be with her children than it is for a father, both for biological and practical reasons.

Biologically, a mother's bond with her children is intimate, familiar, and immediate- the physical and emotional bonds are formed pretty much right from the moment that a child starts breast-feeding. A father's bonds with his children are qualitatively different- not necessarily any less strong, but a father's role is more hands-off, as a source of unquestionable authority and guidance. And in order to be that source of authority, a father does need a certain level of distance that would never work for a mother.

Practically, of course, it's quite simple: women work fewer hours than men do to begin with, they work less challenging jobs, they take fewer risks, and they are far less willing to trade free time for better pay. There happen to be very good reasons why the glass ceiling exists- and most of them are ones that women create for themselves, whether they like it or not.

It is also important to understand that men and women put very different values and emphases on career progression. Men are defined by (among other things) the desire to engage in competition, risk-taking, and hard work. A high-flying career is a natural end result of these traits. Women are defined by very different values and attributes, which is partly why you see so few female CEOs. (Well, that, and the reality that companies led by female CEOs generally do not outperform the overall market. There are, inevitably and unsurprisingly, specific exceptions.)

This is a large part of the reason why men in high-flying careers find it extraordinarily difficult to balance out their home lives with their work lives.

I've seen this happen in my own family. During most of my early life- right up to my mid-teens- I barely saw my father during the week. He'd be travelling sometimes three weeks out of every month. His job kept him working at all hours, always busy and always moving around- I'd lived in four different countries by the time I was 18, solely because of my father's job.

Normally this sort of thing results in tremendous strain on a man's family life and usually the end result is a nasty divorce and kids who grow up alienated from their father. It goes without saying that this is a horrible outcome for all concerned.

My father, and by extension the rest of us, avoided this thanks to three major factors.

First, he has always been a family man- literally all he ever cared about was work and family, and that's it, and although he loved his job and the company he worked for, he loved us more. Most high-flying executives would spend their weekends going on golf outings with their buddies; my dad hates golf (which is almost surely where I get my peculiar distaste for that so-called "sport"), and liked nothing better than to spend the weekends at home with us, or going out to the movies with my mum, my sister (when she came along), and me.

Second, my mother never tried to manipulate us against him. She never tried to hold his time away over his head- she always supported his career aspirations and never once tried to turn us against him, even though I am pretty sure that my dad's travelling put some strain on their marriage.

Third, and most importantly, when it came time to decide between family and career, my father chose family. A couple of years after I left for college, my dad was told that he would shortly be reassigned to another country. At the time my sister was in grade school, and he didn't want to force her to move to another country and another school, and have to rebuild all of her social networks yet again. So instead of taking the easy choice for his career, he made the hard choice for his family- a choice that imposed significant financial stresses upon him and which resulted in radical changes in lifestyle for all of us.

I believe to this day that he made the right choice. I admire and respect him immensely for doing what he believed to be right. And he has never once regretted turning his back on his career to spend more time with us.

This is the nature of the choice that Mr. El-Erian faced. (There is considerable speculation that he actually resigned because of several knock-down, drag-out fights with PIMCO CEO Bill Gross. That could very well be true too.) The hardship involved in the choice may not be financial- but there is hardship involved.

If you've ever seen what happens to a man who worked a busy, challenging, exciting and rewarding career when he retires or cuts back significantly on his work, you'll have some idea of what I'm talking about. I've seen it happen when my dad retired. Suddenly he went from being a bigshot executive in a massive multinational company to, well, a retiree. The adjustment was massive and wrenching. It made him cranky and cantankerous; he went from having a fairly mellow and long-fused disposition to being prone to blowing up pretty much without warning. It took him years to adjust to the change in pace and lifestyle.

This is the reality that Ms. Turner simply refuses to acknowledge while she's scratching her head wondering what the hell the fuss is about. Gender roles exist for a reason. Choices that a woman could make and handle without much difficulty would be nearly impossible for a man to make without significant hardship and consequences- and I'd like to see a woman make the kinds of sacrifices that I've seen my father and his professional peers make without suffering for them. Every high-flying female executive with a family that I've ever seen has had her kids raised by nannies and day-care centres, and many times children with such mothers turn out rather less than well-adjusted.

Whether you're a man or a woman, if you choose career over family, well, that's on you, it's your choice, and as long as you accept the consequences, more power to you. And if you choose the reverse, again, that's on you. But don't then criticise others for making different choices for good reasons.

It's not difficult to figure out which one is objectively better for society.


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