TIME OUT FOR LIFE Workers 'downshift' careers to pursue personal,family goals


A caption to a photograph in the Today section yesterday misidentified Brenda Carl Bridges' children. They are Rebecca and Tommy.

They should wear bumper stickers, perhaps, to avoid being rear-ended by those who have yet to see the light. "I brake," they should warn, "for real life."

They brake to spend time with their kids rather than their clients. To work part- or flex-time rather than full- or overtime. To contribute to their families and communities rather than to their careers and corporations.

One author calls it "downshifting." One company, IBM, calls it "work and personal life balance options." Conservatives hail it as return to traditional family values; others see it as the continuing shift from me-ism to we-ism.

Whatever you call it, you probably know someone in the thick of this trend -- such as the lawyer who steps off the partner track to devote more time to raising her children, the CPA who now inks in time to volunteer in a first-grade classroom, and all those others who are finding that some of the hours previously spent at work are better devoted to the PTA, an aging relative, a community project or even planting and canning their own tomatoes.

"I did 10 years in the newsroom," said Brenda Carl Bridges, inadvertently using prison-sentence lingo in describing her TV and radio broadcasting career.

"I was reporting on other people's lives. I wanted my own life," said the 33-year-old, who quit Channel 2 nearly five years ago after finding that the morning sickness of pregnancy doesn't jive with the morning news broadcast. "You realize life does not go on forever. This is not a dress rehearsal."

The yearning for a fuller life, one defined by more than work and what it allows you to buy, is perhaps just another swing of society's pendulum. After the now much maligned 1980s, that decade of credit-happy consumption and work-as-life-itself, the '90s are shaping up as a decade that emphasizes family over job, happiness over achievement.

"There's a move from conspicuous consumption to visible virtue," said Judith Langer, a market researcher. "People are saying, 'I may not get that, my goal of being rich at 30,' but, also, they're saying that that's not gratifying anyway."

"What we're seeing is an attempt to balance things," said Susan Hayward, senior vice president of Yankelovich Clancy Shulman, a Connecticut-based market research firm. "Work is not the only source [of satisfaction]. We need kids, too. We need friends too."

Workers are increasingly dissatisfied with how their jobs put the squeeze on their personal lives, Yankelovich's annual survey of social attitudes has found. In 1990, for example, 56 percent of working women surveyed said they'd stop working permanently if they had enough money, a remarkable jump from just three years earlier when only 35 percent felt that way.

It's not just working women with children, either, although perhaps they feel most strongly this tug of war between work and personal life. Single women and men are also expressing similar dissatisfaction.

"It almost feels like a cry for relief," Ms. Hayward said of the survey results. "It was extremely dramatic, a release of pent-up pressure. . . . They're saying, 'I need a life.' "

You see this shift in priorities throughout popular culture, as well. You see it in movies such as "Regarding Henry," in which a corporate lawyer needs a shot in the head, literally, to relearn the simple joys of children and puppies. You see it in the business world, where corporations slowly are starting to accommodate workers who want more flexible schedules to care for children or aging parents and longer personal leave time to pursue interests unrelated to their jobs. You see it, perhaps, even in celebrity lifestyles, as Sybaritic playboys like Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson test out the pleasures of parenthood.

It's easy to overstate this, of course. Most people simply don't have the option of giving up full-time employment. Rather, this is a trend among those who do have that choice, usually couples for whom a second income can be sacrificed without great economic distress.

"There's not a day that goes by I don't think of how lucky I am," says Sally Millemann, 40, who gave up her job as deputy director of a legal clinic for the disabled to raise her son, Matthew, now 16 months old. "For many people, most people, to do this would be a significant hardship. For us, it's a little hardship."

Unlike previous generations of mothers who never pursued outside careers, Ms. Millemann and others say that their decision was made easier by the fact that they'd already been out there in the rat race.

"Having a career -- I've done it," said Ms. Millemann, 40, a social worker who specializes in public interest law. "I don't think I could have done this if I hadn't already had a career."

Joan Wingrove once had very definite career plans, and indeed was well on her way toward achieving them -- several years ago, she was a controller for a company, a couple of steps removed from becoming a chief financial officer.

"I lasted about three months. The hours were 8:30 to 5:30, and they'd want you to get there before that and if you could stay after also, fine," said Ms. Wingrove, a CPA who now works at home. "Full time is not 40 hours anymore."

Ms. Wingrove, whose second child was born six months ago, still works a lot of hours, especially during tax season, but she controls when she works them -- even if it means waking up in the middle of the night to finish up a financial statement for a client.

"My goals changed. I used to work six days a week, nine or 10 hours a day. I was right in the guts of it all," she said. "I surprised myself when I stepped back and re-determined what was important to me."

Now, clients who want a Monday morning meeting with her have to pick a different time -- that's when she goes to her oldest daughter's first grade class to help with computers. She's active in the PTA as well.

"I still have my goals of where I want to go eventually," she said, "but not now."

David Kandel has put his career on hold for several years to stay home with his 3-year-old daughter, Julia. For him, the decision to stay home was a way of making his progressive ideals a reality.

"I grew up with the politics of the '60s," said Mr. Kandel, 40, who was one of the senior members of the Maryland Food Committee. "I feel very thankful for the women's movement. I've been able to make peace with the concept of not being the primary breadwinner."

Still, he's paid a price. He sees other people getting jobs that would have been offered to him had he not been "out of circulation.

"You're not as desirable like this," said Mr. Kandel. "There's still a lot of that old mind-set. People on top are real driven -- but they've got a wife, or a wife and nannies. If Julia gets sick, I'm the one, first and foremost, who will take care of her."

Ms. Bridges, the former newscaster, can sympathize. She feels those same pangs when she turns on the television and sees colleagues like Mary Beth Marsden -- whom she jokingly calls her look-alike -- getting chances she might have had.

"I think, what if? I think maybe I could have been filling in as anchor for Sally [Thorner] when she was on maternity leave," said Ms. Bridges. "But then, I look around my house and my family. Not everyone can attain that."

While most people take time off from their careers to raise children, singles also are feeling this urge to devote energy to more than their own career. And some are finding ways of doing this without necessarily giving up their jobs.

Beverly Duvall, a 34-year-old single woman who lives in Elkridge, had a full life -- supervisor of occupational therapy at Johns Hopkins Hospital's rehabilitative medicine department and night school student working on her master's degree.

But seeing the problems of the East Baltimore neighborhood around the hospital made her realize there was more to be done, on a volunteer basis. In April, she joined the RAISE program and now is a mentor to a 13-year-old girl.

"I just got this sense that it was important to be involved in the community. I knew I couldn't save the whole world, but I could help this one child," Ms. Duvall said. "This has been something rewarding that I do beyond my job and beyond my own family."

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