Sometime this spring, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is going to issue a report showing that the trend of married mothers leaving the workforce was both longer and broader than previously thought. Although the report has been much delayed, I have talked to the author and gotten a look at the underlying data.

Even in this supposed economic recovery, the BLS reports, married moms of all classes are refusing to work at anything like the rates they worked in the late 1990s. The best-educated, richest mothers still have the highest opt-out rate, but they are not alone. Guess opting out is not a myth after all. Most of the coverage treats this story as a girly thing, letting female writers cover and argue about it in the "Lifestyle" pages. They fall in love with their babies, they hope to return to work. Who cares what women choose to do?

I do, and I have written that women who quit are making a mistake. But, no matter what you think of moms who opt out, their decisions speak volumes about the workplaces they flee. In interviews and on their mommyblogs, the women able to opt out tell a tale about the twenty-first century workplace that is uncannily reminiscent of the most radical Marxist theory. Maybe we put Marx into the dustbin too fast.

Marxist theory tells us that studies like the one from the BLS matter in part because the women are marginal, so they see more clearly. Although their marital status and class (remember: the opt-outs are disproportionately wealthy and well-educated) give them access to money and privilege, they are still often treated as upstarts and interlopers at work. (From one mommyblog: "The company I work for is touted as being an example for hiring women in management positions however the top echelon is still a 'mens club.'") Since the system does not treat them perfectly, they are somewhat less inclined to think that the existing social system is the natural order of being designed by a benign deity or by Darwin especially for their personal satisfaction. And they are not so desperate for money that they fall into the trap of thinking they like their work just because they need their work (Marx called this the "false consciousness"). Not only do they see more clearly, but they are further liberated, because they have a socially permissible option to retire to a sphere that is less nakedly exploitative than the workplace. When these women speak, it pays to listen. They are like the canaries in the coal mine. If they tumble from the workplace, you can bet there's something toxic in the air.


So they write their mommyblogs, and they sometimes write to me. They say the workplace stinks. They have to work much longer hours than they like; longer than they think anyone should have to work. There is no middle ground in the economy. Either you work killer hours for huge paychecks or you have a lousy part-time job without health care. There is little opportunity for socially responsible work, even in the learned professions like law and medicine. These mothers are insecure for their children's economic prospects--fearing that they will not be able to make it into the dwindling pool of well-paying jobs unless some parent stays home and supervises every aspect of their competitive development. They are reading the labels on everything the children eat, driving them to resum%amp%eacute; building activities, and buffing up their attention skills. Seeing the family as a competitive unit, they are willing to deploy the men, who do not face discrimination and glass ceilings, into the market economy as a better bet for the family to stake its survival on.

This is their picture of American life: no social safety net, relentless pressure to achieve huge profits, growing inequality, alienation from the products of their labor, and the penetration of market values into all aspects of life. The story dovetails perfectly with the classic Marxist description of the unavoidable consequences of capitalism. Maybe the fall of the Berlin Wall wasn't the End of History after all.

You don't have to think Marx was God's gift to philosophy to see that he had some smart observations; and people who want to think seriously about social arrangements in twenty-first-century America ignore his insights at their peril. Ernest Mandel--a latter-day Marxist whose 1973 book Late Capitalism was an overt response to the people who would bury Marx (even before the fall of the Berlin Wall)--can be instructive. Mandel and others did not believe that capitalism had become immortal. Instead they speculated that capitalist society had evolved into "late capitalism." Finance is increasingly globalized, and, with the mobility of capital, the pressure to produce extraordinary profits grows; institutions that moderate the effect of the competition (like unions) atrophy; market forces penetrate and destroy all traditional institutions (more on that below); and the inequality within and between nations grows. Doesn't that sound like the planet we live on?

Mandel was roundly jeered by the Marxist orthodoxy, but his book resonated because it deployed modern-day examples. His description of the fate of the legal profession, for example, could have come directly from the complaints we hear all the time from female former lawyers, who find the modern law firm increasingly incompatible with their desire to do a little work for the public good: "A multitude of functions and activities which had an aura of sanctity about them, counted as an end in themselves, were performed free of charge or were paid for in a roundabout way (like the role of all professionals, doctors, barristers, and so on, in England, where the barrister and physician could not and cannot sue for payment), are on the one hand transformed directly into wage-labour, however different their content and payment."

Here are women, in their own words, describing what this has meant for the American workplace (and why, sometimes, they're afraid even to enter it):

    •  By way of explaining why she wouldn't go to law school, one told me, "I worked at a large, prestigious law firm as a paralegal. ... There were so few female partners; the few who made it were mostly divorced or single. I worked closely with a female attorney who got pregnant and I saw how hard it is to have a family and a career. Immediately there was talk about how she would not make partner. The firm offered a part-time, family friendly, non-partner track. All that it really provided women was the same amount of work and hours for half the pay."
    •  Others just accept that, in order to live comfortably, they won't use their gifts to the fullest: "I've bounced around different jobs/work environments %amp% am content now, at age 37, in the book publishing business. But I'm with a tiny independent and have no plans/visions of becoming an editor to the stars or starting my own imprint. I am satisfied to be in a place where I don't have to manage anyone %amp% don't have anyone managing me. I'm not stressed out, I don't work long hours, I don't bring work anxieties home with me. I know, however, that I am very bright, creative %amp% well-educated and could be doing something on a grander scale and making much, much more money."
    •  Even where people try to moderate workplace demands, the pressures are irresistible. They see the best intentioned programs fail: "I work in a state Attorney General's Office, which is somewhat flexible and was only able to work part time for several years while my children were growing up due to an Attorney General who was raised by a single woman and a female Director of my Division. That program has been replaced by a furlough program but even female supervisors in my office do not want their attorneys taking advantage of it for fear they won't be able to get new attorneys if it shows that the attorneys they have are not working their maximum number of hours."

Mandel found few followers as the Evil Empire dissolved. Capitalism was not only triumphant but rampant. Even now, the mommybloggers shopping for thousand-dollar, bomb-proof strollers on the Upper West Side of New York probably do not see themselves as appropriate subjects for Marxist analysis. But the workplace today certainly fits the description that Marx applied to the decline of a market-based order--and opt-out motherhood has become one of the bellwethers.

By Linda Hirshman