I was riveted by Hanna Rosin’s cover story in the New York Times magazine, “Who Wears the Pants in This Economy?”
The story looks at how the power balance has shifted in the community of Alexander City, Ala. as prestigious jobs at a local textile firm dried up–leaving many men who held them sidelined in their careers in midlife. In some of these very traditional families, wives who never intended to become the breadwinner have found themselves in that role.
The story raises the intriguing question of why the men in the community have struggled to adapt to new economic realities, such as the migration of manufacturing to other countries, while the women have adjusted successfully. And it has bearing for the freelance world–an important source of work outside of the world of corporate America–though it’s not a story about freelancing.
“An important long-term issue is that men are not doing as well as women in keeping up with the demands of the global economy,” Michael Greenstone, an economist at MIT, told Rosin. “It’s a first-order mystery for social scientists, why women have more clearly heard the message that the economy has changed and men have such a hard time hearing or responding.”
Rosin’s conclusion is that the Russell, the textile company, provided structure to almost every key area of the men’s lives. It was a way for them to define themselves, particularly for those with high-status jobs. “When that structure disappeared, `there was no place for us to go,’” one displaced man told her.
While women also worked at Russell, “they were never allowed to be part of its ruling fraternity,” she notes. Because the female employees typically viewed the less prestigious work they did as “just a job,” they essentially had less to lose by making a change to another gig when their work dried up.
“Once it all started to fall apart, some women in town took out loans or used savings to go to school to become nurses, human-resource managers and legal secretaries,” Rosin writes. “Many were willing to take low-paying jobs because they hadn’t spent their lives expecting to be the primary breadwinner.” Thrilled to be earning a steady income, they eventually got promoted to the point where they were earning decent salaries–while their husbands remained on the sidelines.
One of the new realities of the global economy is that more companies are moving to a business model based on contingent labor. There is a lot of opportunity for freelancers and contractors who are good at what they do and build businesses around serving these clients.
But for someone who has enjoyed the status of having a powerful, high-paying job in corporate America, building a business as a solo professional can feel like a bit of a comedown–probably akin to taking one of the jobs the women of Alexander City are willing to accept. Even with the potential to make a great living as freelancers, many corporate folks miss the status of being the big boss and the prestige and feelings of belonging that come with being part of a well-known company. They let that derail them from self employment and wind up getting stuck sending out resume after resume, to no avail.
The women who are thriving in Alexander City have taken a practical approach to their situations and seized the opportunities to work that still exist around them. Because their mindset has allowed them to try something new, they’ve been able to pivot into new and often very rewarding careers.
If you’ve been finding yourself struggling to adjust to life outside of a big corporation and are considering freelancing or just starting out as an indie professional, you’ll find that these women have a lot of valuable lessons to teach all of us. There’s a tremendous amount of power you can unlock if you’re able to put your ego aside — hard as that can be — and dive into a whole new career. Facing unexpected twists of economic fate, these resilient women have found that by really applying themselves, they have been able to reap nice dividends–often more quickly than they expected.