“Millennials” are unhappy with being so-called trailing spouses, or so I hear. Because, you know, they have education, and careers and stuff. And some of them are guys.
This is not surprising, because my generation felt the same way. We also thought we were something new and different. Now I understand why this made the previous generation roll their eyes at the time.
I am in my late forties, which makes me a GenXer. My husband, who just squeaked into the Baby Boom, joined the Foreign Service in 1988, shortly before I graduated from college.
Other than being more female, spouses back in that day were in pretty much the same demographic as new spouses are now. We were nearly all very well-educated, and had often left careers behind. In fact, the the average age of joining was higher back then, so many spouses would actually have been further along on their career trajectories when their officers signed up.
I was an exception, and at that time, probably one of the youngest spouses ever to follow my officer overseas. I had just turned 23 when we landed in La Paz. The ink on my Georgetown University diploma was barely dry. Was I annoyed to find out that the only job available to me at post was temporary secretary? What do you think?
I was terribly disappointed to discover that no one cared about my hard-won education, or even (in some cases) that I could form a complete sentence. “Devastated” might be a better word. I had been working since I was 16, and had certainly done my share of unskilled or semi-skilled labor, but to discover that was not just in my past but in my foreseeable future as well was a shock. Not to mention, I had all those student loans to pay off!
Top that off with the surreal world of women’s clubs and formal receptions. I am from a solidly middle class, middle-American background, and had zero experience with any kind of formal setting to begin with. Then, I went from keg parties in grungy dorms to tea parties at the Ambassador’s residence in a little more than a year.
I realize now that I had several kinds of culture shock going on at once. It was not pretty.
I had no idea what I was getting into. This was pre-Internet, so how could I? I didn’t understand why the few older spouses I met during my husband’s training were so cynical when I brightly said I would be working overseas. I just assumed that they hadn’t tried hard enough. My generation would be different, you see. Because we were smarter, better-educated, less traditional…or something.
In fact, we are different. But not because we are smarter or try harder. We are (theoretically) able to work at most posts overseas because those that came before us worked hard to make jobs available to spouses and to put bilateral work agreements in place. We are able to telecommute and freelance because of this amazing new invention called the Internet. And we are able to avoid most of the onerous responsibilities of previous generations of diplomatic spouses because society at large changed and State reluctantly followed. I’m pretty sure my own cranky cohort drove the last nail into that coffin…
The Foreign Service spouse situation is FAR from perfect. In fact, I wouldn’t even call it all that good. But it is definitely better than it was twenty years ago.
It is also possible now to enter this weird world with your eyes more or less open, thanks to blogs, online communities, and books written by Foreign Service family members. Of course, entering the Foreign Service universe is kind of like having children. You can read all the books you want, but it won’t truly prepare you for the havoc that having your first child will wreak upon your life. I get that. But there is definitely first-hand information out there.
A smart person should know to take everything State says with a grain of salt. After all, if you went to college, you know to always rely on primary sources whenever possible!
It’s easy to assume when you see older spouses who are more or less content with their lot that it was always the case. That they never gave up anything to be a Foreign Service spouse, or that they gave it up gladly. Um, no. Spouses who joined the Foreign Service community back when I did have done one of two things since:
1.) Left the Foreign Service, with or without their officers, or,
2.) Developed a plan for their career and life that works with being a Foreign Service spouse, rather than against it.
What you are seeing now, in short, are the ones who managed to make it work for them. And you can bet it was not an easy process. They may have become writers or artists, or developed other unexpected freelance careers as I have. They may have decided that working as a secretary is OK if it gets them out of the house and makes them feel like part of a team. Or they may have decided that paid work does not have to be part of their personal life fulfillment plan, and that volunteering is pretty cool after all.
Also, burnout happens. State does a lot of stupid stuff. When first presented with that stuff, the natural instinct is to rail against it and try to change it. This is GOOD. But, not everyone can keep up that momentum. Some people decide that State is kind of like a toxic relative that they need to keep out of their lives in order to be happy. That’s a perfectly reasonable approach.
I tried to do that–it didn’t work! What I did learn was to focus on one or two things that I understand and care about, and work to change just those things, at the post level or occasionally on a larger scale.
So, this is what I have to say to “millennials,” with love and affection:
You are so right, about just about everything you can possibly say about State. I agree with you at least 99 percent. But you are wrong about one thing. You are not special. Not because you are young, not because you have an impressive degree or C.V., and not because you want to be recognized for your skills and intelligence. The road you are on has been traveled before, many, many times.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get pissed off about the situation–and hopefully stay that way!