‘Undecided: How to Ditch the Endless Quest for Perfect and Find the Career—and Life —That’s Right for You’
Barbara Kelley and Shannon Kelley, Seal Press, 224 p, $16.95
Undecided is a breezy, stimulating read, a career book for young women that focuses on the particular problems in making critical life and job choices that affect those born between 1977 and 1994. (Although the book name-checks the Millennial Generation quite often, I was at first confused because last time I checked, that generation was called Gen Y. Oh well!)
The aspect of Undecided that most interests me is that it was written by a mother and daughter duo: Barbara Kelley, who’s a professor of journalism at Santa Clara University, and her daughter Shannon, who writes for the Santa Barbara Independent and is also a freelancer and corporate consultant. While Barbara is of the baby boomer generation, Shannon represents the youthful, upwardly aspiring audience that the book is aimed toward, giving the book a sort of dual nature–Undecided eloquently describes the hard, painful choices women still have to make in their work lives from the perspective of someone who has lived through the much tougher, sexist environment of the 1970s and yet the interviews with contemporary women are … well, representative of their generation in the sense that they came off as a little glib, shallow and hard for me to identify with. This doesn’t ruin the book because the Kelley’s overview, their analysis of where contemporary women are in their lives and how challenging they are finding it to make life choices, is so skillfully and perceptively done. In other words, the book offers a lucidly feminist analysis of a whole generation which views itself as having transcended feminism–which is interesting territory, indeed.
The word “feminism” comes up a lot in this book. In one of the chapters that I found most compelling, “The Road Not Traveled,” the Kelleys write about the peculiar pain this younger female generation feels. Explicitly told from birth that they can have it all, unlike any other generation of women, these women are caught up in brooding over missed opportunities, unable to enjoy the often very good jobs in front of them while they fantasize about an even better life, or a more perfect one. “With its focus on creating opportunities,” the Kelleys write, “feminism has brought us an expanse of open doors, but without a strategy to help us choose one. So we frequently find ourselves obsessing over what’s going on behind each and every one.”
The Kelleys are honest about the way that women tend to constantly worry about status and falling behind: “How often are the milestones (marriage, advanced degree, corner office, fat apartment in the city, fat home in the ‘burbs, fat baby in the stroller) we shoot for not–if we were to really think about it–personal goals we’ve set after honest, careful assessment of what we want for our lives, but just sort of assumed? Everyone else is doing it…”
The Kelleys see the constant dissatisfaction of this generation expressed as commitmentphobia. One interviewee says, “My biggest problem is that if I don’t like something, I walk.” What a strange attitude to have! If our grandmother’s generation had no options, and our mother’s generation had limited, lousy options, the generation that calls itself Gen X, of which I’m one, came of age and into the job market in the recession of the early ’90s, where you were lucky to get anything. We didn’t in the least feel entitled to have it all, and in fact the divorces and family dysfunctions with which we were raised in the ’70s pretty much ensured that we entered our twenties feeling a sense of scarcity, insecurity and narrowed options. The job world we moved into wasn’t great, and offered us lots of work for low pay. I remember being quite surprised when instead of any pressure or encouragement from my family, a middle-aged woman friend in my first long-term workplace urged my to finish up my master’s degree, saying it would help increase my career options. Did it really matter that much? I thought. I couldn’t conceive that it mattered to what I thought of as a dead-end career, but finished it anyway.
Reading this book, then, about women just a few years younger than me but with such a different worldview made me feel a sense of sadness at times, but also aware that I’ve been able to enjoy the simpler pleasures of life in a way that it seems like this generation can’t. The Kelleys tackle the notion of happiness head on, repeatedly making the connection between more options and less happiness. “In our modern, interconnected, always-on world, is all of this choice–or maybe more importantly this illusion of limitless, constantly available choice–the modern person’s dilemma?” they ask. “And does it mess with our heads in every realm?” Obviously, yeah–and the Kelleys describe a generation that can’t commit either to jobs or relationships, that always wants to keep the door, or their options, open.
It’s important to stress that the Kelleys do this in a way that isn’t blaming or judgmental. They describe a generation that is driven, terrified to fail, and needing to see themselves as perfect and able to “do it all” at all times. Of course, exhaustion and anxiety accompany these choices.
In fact, the Kelleys take on the most important career conflict in women’s lives–having kids–with some depth. Basically, they repeatedly say, you can’t have it all, both kids and a killer career. While many women see this issue as their own personal failure to cope, the Kelleys say it’s societal: The culture of the modern workplace just doesn’t give a fair deal to working mothers. The Kelleys quote astonishing figures. Did you know that working women in America lose, on average, $431,000 over a forty-year career because of pay inequities between women and men? And women who leave the workplace to have kids never catch up. No wonder that an influential 2009 study found that women are unhappier than men, growing less happy as we age. Thirty-five years ago, the opposite was true. But then, 35 years ago, women had stable female friendships, less chance of divorce, new horizons opening up, and weren’t expected to compete with men in the office.
As the Kelleys write, “we are overwhelmed by choices, judgment, and expectations–and the pressure to appear happy, young, and gravity-resistant while we deal with it. It’s new territory, with no mapped-out trails to follow.”
Despite its “overview” quality, Undecided does take a turn toward the internal by the end. The Kelleys urge women to get in touch with their essential core selves, find out what happiness really means to them, and build upon it. They quote happiness guru Gretchen Rubin as saying, “The thing is, you can only build a happy life on the foundation of your own nature.” (Sounds pretty wise to me.)
While there’s no magical quick fix here for a legion of young women who are perhaps too plugged in to what their peer group is striving for, the Kelleys end by promoting self-acceptance, individuality and even making eccentric, oddball choices. (I can get behind that.) As they write towards the end of the book: “Maybe… a willingness to own our idiosyncratic, oddball, not-always-delightful but utterly human nature can make our choices clearer. With no one to impress, no images to uphold, there’s less to factor in. There’s a freedom there.”
Gabriella West’s latest novel is The Leaving, now available on Smashwords and Kindle.
I enjoyed reading your thought-provoking and insightful review, Gabriella! Thanks for paying attention, getting it right — and keeping the conversation going. Barbara Kelley
Thanks, Barbara! Wishing the book much success.
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