I was a nervous kid. Once, I got so freaked out by the prospect of a speaking part in my first-grade school play that my folks thought I had come down with appendicitis. But there were two times in particular that I remember descending into unmitigated panic. Both involved discussions with my dad about my career.
The first time, my dad was telling me about his year-by-year earning trends as an insurance salesman. He went from being one of several agents manning a booth in a Sears store to being the highest-earning employee in his major international company over about fifteen years. He added zeroes to his income, and a passel of staffers, including my mom for a while (didn’t work out so well – they divorced thereafter).
At his height, he was earning upwards of half a million a year, and this was in the eighties. His company flew him all over the world, showered him with awards and held him up as the high-water mark for all other agents to aspire to. I combined this remarkable achievement with the implicit cultural message that all generations exceeded their parents in earning power and went into an emotional tailspin.
How in the hell was I going to make that kind of money? And taking inflation into consideration, I really had to break seven figures a year to be considered successful. So far, none of my preferred career choices (musician, writer, record company executive) promised such lifestyles. So it seemed I was doomed for failure unless I took up my dad’s mantle and ran his business after he retired.
The thing was, I hated the insurance business. I appreciated all it afforded our family (though it did keep my dad away 70-plus hours a week and, ultimately, helped split my family apart), but I simply couldn’t imagine myself sitting behind that big oak desk in his oversized leather rolling chair for the next four decades of my life.
Which led me to my second panic attack.
Feeling lost, I approached my dad for advice about what to do, just after college. At the time, I was waiting tables, working a part-time job at a record company and playing gigs in the evenings and weekends. I was scraping by, but just barely. Was I doing something wrong? I asked. Should I be casting aside silly dreams of doing something I loved to gut it out until retirement, eschewing personal fulfillment for a career that would offer, instead, more money, social status and maybe even power?
The answer I got was “yes.” In my dad’s mind, a career was not something to enjoy, per se. In fact, if you enjoyed it too much, it was probably more of a hobby than a real job. You knew it was work because it wasn’t particularly fun, and because people gave you money for it. You want pleasure? That’s what weekends or for.
Enter the second panic attack. And this one was far longer, driving me into a deep depression that lasted more than a year. I moved from Dallas to Austin, got turned down for everything I applied for from sandwich artist (I was overqualified) to university event coordinator (I was under-qualified). The fog finally lifted, but it literally took years for me to find my own way, deciding that those definitions of success and fulfillment simply didn’t work for me.
So what does a shitty economy have to do with all of this, and how in the world can it be good news for a man trying to figure out his place in the world? The simple fact is that, for all intents and purposes, the unsustainable cycle of upward mobility has been broken. Most men today no longer believe they have to out-earn their dads, partly because there are increasingly fewer opportunities to do so. It also helps that gender roles have continued to evolve, such that I’m no longer looked down upon for working from home, helping take the kids to school and preparing meals for the family.
It’s my wife who brings in the bigger paycheck every month, and she’s the one with the impressive title and the corner office on the Park Blocks in downtown Portland. And you know what? I’m happy for her. What’s more, I don’t want that. I feel infinitely lucky to get to hammer away on this keyboard from the makeshift office, carved out of our garage, and to travel on occasion to speak to groups about what it means to be a person (first) and a man (second) of faith in the twenty-first century.
So thanks, shitty economy, for helping free me from the illusion of what I thought I had to be. And thanks, Amy, for being more ambitious than I am in the professional sphere. And thanks, dad, for showing me one way to live, whether I chose to follow that path or not.
And finally, thanks to the surrounding culture for making space for us dads who don’t exactly fit the time-tested mold. I ain’t “Mad Men,” but I ain’t exactly “Mrs. Doubtfire” either. And for now, that seems to be working for all of us pretty well.