Undecided: Do Women Now Have Too Many Career And Life Options?

Commitment phobia. Analysis paralysis. Grass-is-greener syndrome. You name it, women today are plagued by it. Unlike our mothers, these women were born of a generation blessed with limitless choices -- a generation that’s found that the more choices we have, the harder it is to find happiness.

Take Sarah, for example, a twenty-nine-year-old lawyer who wants only one thing: sweet escape from practicing law. Ask her, and she’ll claim to have no idea why she ever applied to law school in the first place -- indeed, that she never really wanted to be a lawyer. And yet apply she did, and found herself at a second-tier school, ranking in the top ten of her class, making the law review and ultimately scoring a gig with a big firm. She’s made a huge amount of money from the start but has never liked what she does -- has actually pretty thoroughly hated much of the work, silently praying that she’ll never have to go into court. Raised in California by parents who vacationed at their wine country ranch, what Sarah really wants to do is open a wine bar. Her fondest hope is to get laid off -- with a severance package, of course.

And then there’s Jane, twenty-seven. Worried that only “perfect” will do, she has yet to commit to anything other than a series of uninspiring jobs since graduating from college. This is not for lack of trying, however. Over the years, she’s spent lots of time investigating possible careers and grad schools, and conducting countless “informational interviews” with journalists, lawyers, and entrepreneurs so she’d be armed to make an informed decision. Perhaps too informed.

As Malcolm Gladwell explained in his book Blink, “too much information” isn’t just a clever expression -- the best decisions are often the ones made before giving yourself too much time to think. And he’s not the only one to have found that a clogged mind is a confused mind: The classic 1950s “Magical Number Seven” study showed that the human brain can hold seven bits of information in working memory at a time. Any more, and things can get dicey.

As for Jane, she applied to business school. She applied to law school. Didn’t get in on one count; decided not to go on the other. So overwhelmed by the choices that confronted her, she once confided that she wished she’d grown up in a culture where everything, from spouse to career, was chosen for her.

And then there’s Melissa, thirty-eight, who excelled at a string of jobs, ascending into the upper echelons of project management at companies ranging from HBO to Microsoft. She recently went back to school to pursue her passion, earning a master’s in counseling. For months, she’s been ferociously logging the hours required for her certificate. But once she gets it, she has no idea what she’ll do with it. Private practice? Take it back to corporate America? She doesn’t know and often worries that this detour into work she loves is steering her away from work society says she “should” do. “I feel like I should be more . . . successful,” she says. She fears she can’t have both -- her passion and success -- making the choice to change directions in pursuit of her passion all the more terrifying.

What is the matter with these women? They should be stoked. But instead they’re stressed. Restless. Stuck second-guessing themselves and looking over their shoulders. And they can’t quite figure out why.

Their mothers wonder what’s with their daughters. Said Sharon, a sixty-something mother who came of age during the opening strains of the women’s movement: “When I was your age, women had three options: teacher, secretary, nurse. You’re so lucky!”

Indeed, for the first time for American women, most all the doors are open. The landscape of today would be scarcely recognizable to the feminists of the second wave. And yet what we see is that increased options go hand in hand with increased angst.

We are in the midst of a great experiment: Regardless of age or circumstance, and for all kinds of reasons -- women are universally overwhelmed. But can all of this angst also be a catalyst for opportunity? And if so, how do we seize it?

A nice place to start might be in recognizing our shared experience. As Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman put it, “On college campuses where women take rights for granted, many shy away from the F-word as if it were a dangerous brand. A second narrative has taken hold… that says one generation’s feminism made the next generation unhappy. There is talk about too many pressures and too many choices. It’s as if the success of feminism was to blame, rather than its unfinished work. Indeed it took Mary Cheney to offer bracing words at a recent Barnard College gathering: ‘This notion that women today are overwhelmed with choices, my God, my grandmother would have killed to have these choices.’”

She probably would have. But what grandma didn’t realize -- couldn’t have realized -- was how it would feel to have all of these options laid out before her . . . and to have to make up her mind, to pick one. And now, women who have reaped the benefits of the feminist movement but who have no personal connection to the struggle that earned those benefits—are experiencing the other side of the same coin, waxing nostalgic for an optionless world whose limits they’ve never known.

Going back isn’t the answer; but that doesn’t mean our work here is finished. Just getting access to all these paths was the first step, but while feminism’s momentum carried us to this point -- with all the open doors women had hoped for -- something stalled along the way. And now we’re stuck, idling, at a collective crossroads, “suffering collective growing pains,” as feminist icon Germaine Greer put it. The end of the road isn’t behind us -- we’re in the midst of a movement that’s still got some serious work to do.

Excerpted from Undecided, Seal Press, copyright 2011 by Barbara Kelley and Shannon Kelley.