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CIOS - Discourses of Careerism, Separatism, and Individualism: A Work/Life Communication Response to The Opt-Out Revolution
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 16 Numbers 3 & 4, 2006


Stacey M. Wieland
Villanova University

Abstract: This essay adopts the lens of work/life communication for responding to discourses of The opt-out revolution. In providing a response, I (a) explore “opting-out” and “balancing” as micro-level discourses as to how to successfully manage tensions between work and other parts of life and (b) reflect on the Discourses that are necessary for each to be compelling. I conclude that the discourse of opting out implicitly affirms an ideology of careerism, while the discourse of balancing implicitly affirms an ideology of separatism—and that both discourses affirm an ideology of individualism.

In this paper, I respond to the opt-out revolution article and forum postings from a work/life perspective. Several theoretical perspectives have been developed to understand the character of the relationship between work and life (e.g., segmentation, compensation, spillover, and interaction). These perspectives primarily describe what the relationship “is” rather than considering how it comes to be constructed in that way (Kirby, Golden, Medved, Jorgenson, & Buzzanell, 2003). Kirby et al. argue that communication researchers interested in work/life issues have a unique opportunity to contribute to this field of study precisely because of our attention to the ways discursive processes construct experiences of work and life. They challenge communication scholars “to critically examine daily, micro-level discourses that communicatively construct work and family” (p. 34).

In this paper I take on this challenge. Drawing on social constructionism, I view micro-level discourses—such as Lisa Belkin’s (2003) article and the subsequent online discussion—as being actively involved in constructing social reality. Following Alvesson and Kärreman (2000), I distinguish between micro-level discourses and broader macro Discourses. Inspired by Berger and Luckmann (1966), I consider two interrelated and simultaneous relationships between discourses and Discourses. First, Discourses legitimate discourses by making them compelling: The ideological commitments of the broader Discourses justify micro-level discourses and allow them to remain plausible. Second, micro-level discourses are actively involved in the continued sedimentation of macro Discourses: Micro-level discourses affirm that Discourses reflect the way things “are” rather than reflect the outcome of ongoing processes of social reality construction. This reinforces the perception that constructed Discourses stand apart from the individuals who (re)produce them in moment-to-moment interactions (Berger & Luckmann, 1966).

In this analysis I begin with recurring themes in the micro-level discourses of the article and postings to the forum. The theme that was most apparent was the question of how to successfully manage tensions between work and other parts of life, and within this, two subthemes (what I call management strategies) emerged. The two most prevalent strategies for how one might “successfully” manage work and life are opting out and balancing. While Belkin’s (2003) article focused primarily on opting out as a strategy for managing work and life, the online posters primarily reacted against the viability of opting out (for various reasons). [1] Instead, many replaced the discourse of opting out with a discourse of balancing. I explore each of these discourses by considering (a) the connotations of each and (b) the implications of these discourses for the construction of work as a part of everyday life. [2]

In discussing the discourses of opting out and balancing, I reflect on the Discourses that are necessary for each to be compelling. While the plausibility of the discourse requires the ideological commitments of the Discourse, the use of the discourse concurrently affirms and reconstructs its ideology. I conclude that the discourse of opting out implicitly affirms an ideology of careerism while the discourse of balancing implicitly affirms an ideology of separatism. Both discourses, I claim, affirm an ideology of individualism. Throughout, I consider the implications of these d/Discursive practices.

The discourse of Opting Out and the Discourse of Careerism

Belkin’s primary metaphor for understanding the relationship between work and life is that of “opting out.” Two forms of opting out are apparent in Belkin’s article. The first and most prevalent meaning of opting out is quitting one’s paid work completely. This is what Belkin is referring to when she cites statistics about the number of professional women who are no longer a part of the work force (p. 44) and tells the stories of women in the Atlanta book club. The second meaning of opting out is what Belkin calls ratcheting back (p. 58); opting out in this sense refers to those who have “scaled down or redefined their roles in the critical career-building years” (p. 44).

Whether it refers to quitting one’s paid work completely or scaling back, the discourse of opting out—as used by Belkin and the women in her article—carries with it the assumption that it is a temporary arrangement. It is clear in Belkin’s article that the reason these women have opted out is to raise their children for the short term. One woman said, “This is not permanent” (p. 58). Another clarified, “as long as I have the chit on the table that says ‘This is not forever,’ then I feel O.K. about it” (p. 58). Yet another said, “I am doing what is right for me at the moment, not necessarily what is right for me forever” (p. 58). All of these excerpts suggest that we might understand Belkin’s use of “opting out” as referencing a “time out.”

Within Belkin’s article, it is clear that this time out is seen as more readily available to women than men. One woman says, “Maternity provides an escape hatch that paternity does not” (p. 44). This view can be seen throughout the comments of the women interviewed as well as in Belkin’s own commentary. Thus, within Belkin’s article opting out is seen as a temporary option for women who want to raise their children (of course, this refers to a certain group of privileged women, as Belkin admits and Simpson and Kirby (2006 [direct link to article]) discuss). This discourse of opting out is legitimized by what I call the Discourse of careerism.

The Discourse of careerism is an ideological commitment to the idea that successful [white-collar] work is all-encompassing, requiring the focused commitment of one’s whole self. What I call the Discourse of careerism is implicit in duGay and Salaman’s (1992) discussion of entrepreneurial culture. They write, “enterprising companies ‘make meaning for people’ by encouraging them to believe that…no matter what position they may hold within an organization their contribution is vital, not only to the success of the company but to the enterprise of their own lives” (p. 625). At the same time that the importance of individual’s efforts has increased, a “new social contract” characterized by temporary, tenuous relationships between employees and employers has developed (Buzzanell, 2000). This shift results in the “new career” in which responsibility for advancement is centered on the individual rather than the organizational level. Careers become a “project of the self” to which one must tend (Grey, 1994): “the pursuit of career pervades even the most intimate forms of social relations” (p. 493), such that work is seen as sovereign over all other pursuits.

The Discourse of careerism legitimates the discourse of opting out by enabling the solution of taking a temporary time out to be seen as a viable, perhaps even a necessary, way to navigate work and family. Without the overarching ideology that having a “successful” career is an all-or-nothing endeavor, the idea of opting out of one’s career would not be a plausible or compelling approach to managing work/life tensions. While the discourse of opting out requires the Discourse of careerism for legitimation, it simultaneously participates in the sedimentation of the Discourse. This occurs because the discourse of opting out perpetuates the assumption that a committed worker is one whose primary (or only) focus is succeeding at work, and that those who opt out knowingly disavow that commitment, considering this a special sacrifice during those “critical career-building years.”

Belkin hopes, however, that these women’s choice to opt out might start a revolution, “redefining work” (p. 45). She asserts that as a result of the choice of these women “men are freed to act like women” (p. 86) and opt out as well. Many of the posters, however, show skepticism and assert that Belkin’s optimism is overstated. Perhaps this is because the discourse of opting out, although it may increase the viability of a temporary exit during one’s years of childcare, reinforces rather than challenges the Discourse of careerism. While opting out can be seen as an individual’s act of resistance against the Discourse of careerism, these individual acts ultimately fail to contest the relationship between one’s various nonwork pursuits and one’s career that is constructed through a careerist ideology.

This is because the discourse of opting out found in Belkin’s article implies that the only reason one might scale back or quit work is to temporarily raise her children. This assumption supports the perception that only working mothers experience tension between work and life. [3] In her exploration of the linguistic construction of the term “working mother,” Johnson (2001) argues that while the term is somewhat liberating in that it names the tensions experienced by mothers who also work, it also strengthens a paradoxical relationship between working and mothering. The opt-out discourse similarly preserves incompatibilities between having a career and mothering. It maintains work/life conflict as a women’s issue rather than a broader issue involving ideologies of work and careers. Thus, the Discourse of careerism is ironically strengthened and affirmed through individual acts of resistance which appropriate the discourse of opting out.

The discourse of Balancing and the Discourse of Separatism

While Belkin and the women she interviewed privilege the discourse of opting out, the forum postings responding to the opt-out article show a preference for the discourse of balance. Many of the postings critiqued Belkin for featuring a rare and privileged perspective on work and family. One alternate strategy that recurred in the online conversation is that of balance. While Belkin does use the word “balance” within her article, it is clear from the postings that many readers did not perceive opting out as achieving balance (although some do equate the two).

Posters referred to balancing as both a means (“balancing act”) and an end (“pursuit of balance”). However, seeing balance as an end was by far more prevalent. In fact, for many it seemed that balance had become the goal for which all should strive. For example, one poster critiqued Belkin for ignoring “the far more substantive question of the balance of work and family and life for all people, men and women” (jacjcp , #80-10/25/03).

Posters who used the discourse of balance most often used it to refer to managing two domains: work and family. Used in this way, balancing constructs a dichotomy between work and family. Balance connotes the imagery of a scale on which there are two forces pulling against one another. [4] This implicitly connotes that there are only two activities being balanced and that they are distinct, identifiable and mutually exclusive. Further, it sets them in a competitive relationship whereby gains in one cause losses in the other. I term this the Discourse of separatism, the idea that work and life are segmented and conflicting. The Discourse of separatism corresponds to what Kanter (1977) called the “myth of separate spheres.” To be sensible, the discourse of balance requires the Discourse of separatism, as one cannot balance interlaced activities.

Indeed, the Discourse of separatism can be beneficial for individuals managing work and family. As Kirby et al. (2003) note, the separation of the spheres can be useful to individuals by helping them shield home life from organizational pressures. From this point of view, evoking the ideology of separatism by appropriating the discourse of balance might enable individuals in their quest to build boundaries between work and life. This is consistent with research illustrating that individuals actively work to construct boundaries between work and life and that there are benefits to separation (e.g., Jorgenson, 1995; Nippert-Eng, 1996).

However, the discourse of balance and the resulting separatism are also problematic. Two reasons that the discourse of balance is troublesome are articulated well by Kirby et al. (2003, note 1, p. 34): “this language choice also sets up value judgments that such an ideal is preferable and possible.” We can see this in llclearly’s value judgment that “Men and women need balance in work and family life” (#17-10/24/03 ). llclearly certainly assumes balance is desirable and the implicit assumption is that it is a feasible goal.

The first problem Kirby et al. (2003) identify is that the discourse of balance implies that balance between work and family is a goal that all should pursue (and this assertion can be seen in some of the postings previously quoted). Using the discourse of balance to refer to what everyone deserves or should have can be dangerous as it asserts that “balance” is ultimately good, without considering what constitutes balance. Perhaps everyone does not desire to achieve work/life balance as it has been historically and culturally understood. Asserting that balance is the universal ideal for the relationship between work and other parts of life impedes discussions of what this relationship could and should look like.

The second problem Kirby et al. (2003) articulate is that implicit in the discourse of balance is the assertion that balance is possible. Indeed, some of the posters indicated their skepticism about the possibility of balance. For example, oremstango commented that “[I] have yet to see women in my company who have successfully achieved that balance” (#18-10/24/03). Part of the reason for this skepticism might be that the goal of balance is a slippery one: What exactly does balance look like? How would one know if and when it was one achieved? One poster recognizes there are various meanings to balance: “…the problem is that the whole concept of work-life balance means different things for the employee and the employer” (wallofvoodoo , #109-10/25/03). While these posters expressed suspicion about the ambiguity of the discourse of balance, many posters glossed over the question of what constitutes balance. Using the discourse of balance ambiguously shuts down rather than contributes to a consideration of how work relates to other parts of life and which interests this relationship serves.

While the discourse of balance does acknowledge that work and family are not readily compatible, my concern lies in the way that the discourse of balance and the Discourse of separatism provide a way to make sense of their continued incompatibility. Kanter (1977) reminds us that the myth of separate spheres was created as a result of corporate efforts. The Discourse of separatism releases organizations from responsibility for nonwork life as it falls outside of the work domain. Yet, research illustrates that work organizations have a strong influence over individuals’ time, values and selves well beyond the artificial boundaries of workplaces (Deetz, 1992; Kunda, 1992; Perlow, 1997). The ambiguity of the discourse of balance promotes a Discourse of separatism that allows organizations to continue to avoid taking responsibility for their impact on employees’ lives outside of the work sphere. Instead, this responsibility rests on the individual, resulting in, as irunamok0 put it, “frustration and the constant pursuit of balance” (#26-10/24/03). I turn more specifically to this issue of individualism in the next section.

The discourses of Opting Out and Balancing and the Discourse of Individualism

In the preceding sections I argued that (a) the discourse of opting out affirms a Discourse of careerism, which retains the incompatibilities between work and life, and (b) that the discourse of balancing affirms a Discourse of separatism, which upholds a segmented yet ambiguous relationship between work and family. In this section, I consider the ways that both discourses affirm a Discourse of individualism.

Both opting out and balancing refer to individual strategies for managing work and life. Each constructs the management of work as a part of everyday life as an individual problem and process, placing responsibility for it on the worker. This can be seen in the way each discourse signals that there is an agent behind it. The notion of opting out begs the question of who is opting out. The notion of balancing work and life implies that someone is doing this balancing. Because both of these discourses summon an agent, they rely on what I call a Discourse of individualism, the idea that work/life issues are primarily navigated at the individual level.

The frequent reference to individual choice throughout the article and the postings confirms that such an individualist ideology surrounds discussions of work as a part of everyday life. Most uses of the word “choice” within Belkin’s article refer to a decision made by an individual. For example, one woman is quoted as saying, “… I feel so happy with my choice” (p. 58), while Belkin writes, “ Talk to any professional woman who made this choice…” (p. 58).

Not surprisingly, readers challenged Belkin’s use of the idea of choice on the online forum. Many did not agree with Belkin that choice refers to an either/or situation between career and family. Instead, they framed choice as deciding between various priorities such as money, success, and fulfillment. For example, emkronoff commented, “the vast majority of Americans are really choosing between upper-middle, middle, and lower-middle class lives” (#84-10/25/03). The poster explained further, “It’s the ones who choose to give up the gym for the park, the Land Cruiser for the Honda Accord, the Starbucks for a brewed coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts, the Olive Garden for Pizza Hut, the Gap for Target, the new deck for a little garden they grow themselves.” While they challenged Belkin’s framing of what the choice is between, posters retained the individualist meaning of the word choice, referring to it as the individual’s ability to make a decision for one preferred option over another.

Belkin’s and posters’ uses of the idea of choice in conjunction with the discourses of opting out and balancing serve to emphasize the agency of individuals. In asserting that managing work and life is an individual problem, these discourses fail to promote sensitivity to the ways that individual experiences are embedded in familial, organizational and social institutions. I am not claiming that individuals do not make meaningful choices about how to navigate work and life; rather I am claiming that the individual level is only part of the picture. As long as we retain a singular focus on individual strategies such as opting out and balancing, we simplify the complexity of these issues. Positioning work/life issues as an individual problem rather than as simultaneously a familial, organizational, societal, and global problem hinders the ability of communities to imagine and make possible various ways of working and living.


By considering how the relationship between work and life is discursively constructed in Belkin’s article and the subsequent online forum, we are able to see not only how these micro-level discourses produce social realities but we can also identify how these discourses both rely upon and affirm macro Discourses. By considering these d/Discourses together, we open up a conversation about their ideological commitments and how they enable and constrain our working and living. I hope the brief discussion here will stimulate further discussions about the ideologies we implicitly affirm in our discourses about work and life. The question we must wrestle with together is whether those ideologies sustain values for which we want to labor.


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Simpson, J. L. and Kirby, E. L. (2006). “Choices” for whom?: A white privilege/social class communicative response to The Opt-Out Revolution. The Electronic Journal of Communication, 16(3&4).


[1] Various other substitutions did occur in the forum postings. I focus on balance because it was the most prevalent.

[2] Throughout this paper, I use phrases such as “work as a part of everyday life” to try to avoid privileging a binary, opposing relationship between work and family/home/life.

[3] We can see this perception when Belkin writes “a surprising amount of the talk [in her biweekly column about life and work] is … about how the relationship between work and life is different for women than for men” (p. 47).

[4] While most of the uses of balance throughout the postings refer to balance either implicitly or explicitly as between two things, a few posters use the word to refer to a complex relationship between more than just two spheres. For example, ysolde1968 writes, “I have given up the dream of the ‘power career’ for a balanced life, a life in which work, volunteering, spirituality, and my family are all intertwined” (#5-10/24/03).

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