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Life's Obstacle Course

by Joel Hoekstra

Phyllis Moen

Phyllis Moen
Photo by Leo Kim

Phyllis Moen

McKnight Presidential Chair in Sociology


B.A., U of North Dakota; Ph.D., U of Minnesota

Selected publications

Working Parents and Women's Two Roles; It's About Time: Couples and Careers (ed.); and The Career Mystique: Cracks in the American Dream

On Minnesota

“One reason I came back to Minnesota is that there's a strong sense of corporate and civic responsibility. I think we really care about quality of life in Minnesota, beyond the bottom line. The question I hope to answer over the next few years is, can Minnesota lead in rewriting the lockstep (educationemployment- retirement) script?”

Closing the flexibility gap

“Scandinavian cultures are often admired for the way they deal with social issues. But the solutions that ultimately will work for the United States are going to be unique to this country, I think. The innovations have to come from businesses—employers and employees—and states. We have to create our own template. And I think we’re capable of doing that.”

Why people should read her new book

“It's about issues that affect us all—jobs, retirement, families, communities, and the ways they intersect. Making it accessible to all kinds of readers was very important to me. I don't want to write just for scholars. This is my effort to get people thinking about new ways to work, retire, and live.”

Wondering why you can't seem to manage work, family, and financial responsibilities? Renowned sociologist Phyllis Moen has some reassuring news: You’re not alone. And her new book calls for some big solutions.

Over the past quarter-century, Phyllis Moen has become an expert on changing career paths, work-life issues, and the life course. She has interviewed scores of people, combed through data, and published many books and articles. But when Moen talks about the dynamic nature of life's course, she speaks not only as a scholar, but also as someone who has encountered the hurdles that work and life inevitably put in our path.

In the 1960s, long before she became a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota—where she now holds a McKnight Presidential Chair—Moen lived on a farm in Crookston with her husband and two daughters. She earned her bachelor's degree and then her master's by completing correspondence courses over the years and commuting the 22 miles to the University of North Dakota when her youngest was in kindergarten.

Not everyone approved of her decision to return to school. “One friend said she would never do that to her children,” Moen recalls. “More women were staying at home then. Expectations for women were in flux. It was the time of the women's movement and the Vietnam War. In many respects, large-scale social changes were affecting individuals’ lives in the same way that they are now.”

When her husband died at age 34, Moen, then 32, was thankful for the undergraduate education that enabled her to enroll in a Ph.D. program at the U.

That was then…

Today, the mainstream has begun to catch up with Moen: Women today constitute roughly half the workforce, and dual-income families are increasingly the rule. Yet there's still more catching up to do: Many outdated ideas about work, life, and success continue to hamstring women and men alike, Moen says. “People move through a series of roles throughout adulthood,” she explains. “But there 's the expectation that we should all take the same path.” Full-time education, followed by continuous full-time employment, capped by full-time retirement— that's the lockstep course most Americans see as “normal” and most institutional arrangements support.

The problem, Moen says, is that few of us travel that straight-arrow route. Loyal and productive employees suddenly find themselves laid off. Women and men take time off to raise families, serve in the National Guard, or go back to school. Retirees decide to take part-time jobs or launch entrepreneurial ventures. The lockstep course of school-workretirement “is a myth,” Moen says.

“It was never a reality except for a very small percentage of the population. Yet we still gauge people by that model. We judge people's failure and success by mid-20th-century ideas that no longer fit with 21st-century realities.”

Walking the treadmill

Unfortunately, most government policies and business practices remain geared to the outdated but entrenched “lockstep treadmill,” Moen says. Universities are largely set up to serve students in their late teens and early 20s. Health insurance is tied to full-time jobs. And retirement pensions are available only to those who put in years of full-time work on the job.

With coauthor Patricia V. Roehling, Moen lays out the gap between such practices and contemporary realities in her most recent book, The Career Mystique: Cracks in the American Dream, whose title alludes to another groundbreaking book published more than 40 years ago. “Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique to call attention to the absence of women's total fulfillment in being wives and mothers,” Moen says. “Friedan pointed out that paid work could be fulfilling as well. But she didn't look at the other side of the equation: the cultural contradictions of jobs demanding full-time, continuous commitment.”

Since Friedan's book began flying off the shelves in the 1960s, women have sought to “have it all”—motherhood and family as well as career success—but not without a cost. Many are overstretched and exhausted by the competing demands of managing dual roles within a system that offers few supports for new family and work configurations. Now Moen's book has come to the rescue.

Changing the system

Today, all adults in households with children are typically in the workforce, says Moen, who worries about working families trying to juggle job and home responsibilities. Most Americans feel they don't have enough time and fear that they’re falling behind. Ironically, though, most also think they’re alone.

“Most people see the strains of their lives as private troubles,” Moen explains. “They say, ‘I just need to get more organized. What if I made the week's meals on Sunday night and freeze them? What if I laid out Joey's clothes the night before?’”

But Moen calls for broader, systemic solutions. For starters, drop some of the rules constraining career path and work-hour options. And accept the realities of “timeouts”— for childrearing, elder care, and additional education.

Such practices as hiring two part-time people for a single job is difficult for businesses given current policies governing benefits, health care, and tax rules. “ERISA [Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which sets minimum standards for employee benefit plans], payroll taxes, Social Security— everything is based on the idea of continuous full-time work, week after week, until you die or retire,” Moen says.

Moen does see on the horizon some reason for hope. “The potential for change is strongest among aging boomers who don't want to be turned out to pasture or to remain stuck in their current jobs,” she says.

“Boomers want flexibility, and they may push for more work-hour options. If we as a society can invent flexible options for this large cohort on the precipice of retirement, everyone will benefit—workers, families, businesses, and communities.”

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