James McNeill Whistler, Resting in Bed (1883–1884). Image credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Charles Lang Freer
You may have heard that (female) ambition is over. Hustle culture is dead. The girlboss is dead; in her place, the bimbo has risen. It is the end of ambition. Ambition is so out that we live in an age of anti-ambition.
And … yeah. These are all excellent and highly resonant pieces of writing. I see it all around me, particularly among my Elder Millennial cohort. Women are scaling back, quitting what were once beloved jobs, at least trying to devote more time to their lives outside of work. Some of these women are mothers of young children, and have put work on a steady simmer on the back burner while they focus on family. Others reached the upper echelons of their career or company only to find themselves uninspired, exhausted, and wondering if this is really it; a few have run far away from where they started, switching careers entirely or quitting with no real plan; others are grinding it out, but with the bare minimum of effort.
There is indeed a vibe shift afoot. And I am finding myself far outside of it, thoroughly unchill, deeply competitive, and still as ambitious as ever, gazing over the corpse of the Girlboss at a cohort of quiet quitters and wondering: What happens to those of us who are exiting “young adulthood,” looking over the horizon at midlife, and thinking, wait—there is so much more I want to achieve?
Ambition has always been a squicky term when applied to women. I certainly reflexively cringe when I hear it used pejoratively, a reaction to years of subtle (and often not-so-subtle) criticism of my own naked ambition and the disgust and rejection routinely leveled at women with the gall to try to achieve something, from Tracy Flick to Hillary Clinton. That means I’ve been cringing a lot lately, because the Formerly Ambitious Woman is either a symbol of a kind of collective generational anti-capitalist enlightenment or a punching bag. As for the currently Ambitious Woman … Wait, who?
It’s not that high-achieving women have disappeared from the public eye (they certainly have not), but straightforward statements of personal ambition from women have scaled way back. I’m not going to defend every aspect of the Girlboss—beginning with the insulting and diminutive moniker and ending with the exploitative labor practices—but I will absolutely defend having an avatar of unapologetic female drive. It was liberating, for those of us who had so often seen our striving met with raised eyebrows and condescension, to enjoy a brief era in which female ambition was cool and respected.
It was predictable, of course, that the cultural tides would turn (they began turning, I believe, the moment ambitious women started getting called “girlbosses”). And the tides didn’t turn to the reasonable, like, “We should strive for more balance,” or “Being a CEO doesn’t need to be everyone’s life goal,” or “How can we better talk about power and capitalist workplace structures?” Instead, there was a collective effort to knock the Girlboss down a peg, to pathologize her, and to make her the same archetype as so many ambitious women before: the conniving, selfish bitch climbing the ladder by digging her stilettos into everyone else’s backs.
The truth is that the various Girlbosses who were gleefully taken down in the spree of anti-Girlboss media broadsides were, often, not behaving all that differently from male CEOs. Some were behaving quite badly; others, frankly, weren’t behaving that badly at all, they just weren’t everyone’s mommy or weren’t living up to some anti-hierarchal and frankly amorphous feminist standard. That isn’t to say that women should be given a pass because “men do it too” or that women who were legitimate criminals (ahem, Elizabeth Holmes) didn’t deserve the full glare of the media spotlight. It is to say that media feeds on trends and cycles, and within the last few years it was 100 percent absolutely a trend to write The Girlboss Takedown Piece. And The Girlboss Takedown Piece was inevitably about one of the relatively few women who was both a woman and a person in a position of power, usually the founder or owner of a company; it didn’t matter if she had never espoused feminist ideals, or branded herself a “Girlboss” (really, other than one maker of slightly tacky affordable clothing, who did?). What mattered is that she was a woman in charge, and that made her ripe for knocking down—being put in her place, you might say.
Male founders, bosses, and business owners have not been subjected to this. While there have been industry-specific media feeding frenzies (the bad tech founder comes to mind), there is nothing culturally suspicious about a man in power, or a man pursuing power, or a male founder or boss or business owner.
There is nothing culturally suspicious about male ambition, and so men are not socially punished for being ambitious. Nor is it front page news when men hit midlife and decide that there’s more to life than working like a dog (men instead write entire best-selling books about this). There is indeed a crisis of male ambition afoot, too, although it’s not usually called that, in part because it’s not exactly that. When men and boys drop out of work, it’s not seem as an anti-capitalist success story or some wonderful generational turn toward better balance and fulfillment; it’s largely framed as a crisis of masculinity. And in truth, a male exodus from the traditional institutions of work and marriage is often a precursor to dysfunction.
So all is not ok in man-land. But the narrative for men is different. And for men, there are a great many models of respectable working manhood, including the ambitious innovator and the focus-on-my-family man.
For women, not so much. And the huge backlash to the Girlboss sent a clear message: ambitious women are distasteful and morally suspect. At best, they are ignorant rubes, little suckers who are selling their time in an exploitative capitalist system for, what? A job title? Money?
The much-written-about Elder Female Millennial rejection of ambition isn’t a bad thing, any more than female ambition was a bad thing. Ideally, we could look at this and say that a few things are going on, the first of which is that different people are different and that’s fine (not everyone is or should be professionally ambitious; some people are, and good for them), and the second of which is that people change, particularly at the life stage Millennials are in now.
The oldest among us are hitting our 40s, a period long associated with male midlife crises. Those male midlife crises were often tied up with work—men who hadn’t achieved what they had hoped, or found their suburban lives to be suffocatingly boring, or simply looked in the mirror and saw their fathers and panic-bought a convertible or acquired a younger girlfriend. It’s not particularly shocking that women, having now entered the workforce en masse while also scaling up our work at home (and particularly when it comes to parenting), are encountering a similar kind of combination anxiety-malaise as we look toward middle age: How did I get here? and Is this it? and Am I my mother?
It’s not hard to see how hard that wall hits for the women who busted their asses only to be held back—as so many women are—or who encountered the harsh reality that childbearing very often does mean discrimination at work and/or a very real inability to perform at the same level professionally while working overtime trying to raise a small human in a more-competitive-than-ever society.
The problem, though, is taking this really normal life stage, exacerbated as it may be for mothers in particular, and positioning it as probably good in contrast to ambition, which is probably bad.
I’m not criticizing any of these “end of ambition” pieces, which are getting to something quite real that is happening among a lot of women I know. But I am criticizing the broader idea that these aren’t just predictable life ebbs and flows (with an ebb reliably coming along with childbearing and then the transition to middle age) or fixable problems (is it at all bad or sad that ambitious women have that snuffed out by a system that crushes them?), but rather part of a binary value system that only gets applied to women: ambition was okay for a moment, but now it’s not, so not only are there no downsides to this withdrawal from ambition (there are), but we were right to be suspicious of female ambition all along. In other words, the problem is not the observation that female ambition is ebbing among some women of a certain age. The problem is the positioning of ebbing ambition as self-realizing enlightenment (rather than, perhaps, crushing disappointment), alongside a broader cultural pathologizing of female ambition.
I should say here that I have made a whole lot of professional choices that could be shoehorned into an ambition-rejection narrative. I quit working as a lawyer to pursue a career as a freelance writer; the minute that seemed to be going well, I picked up and moved abroad and widened my professional focus out from U.S. politics. I teach yoga and writing, and travel around the world to do it; what’s that if not the height of late-30s burnout cliché?
But none of those career shifts have come from a desire to scale back; they’ve been about dedicating my time to a job I really wanted instead of one that paid really well, or shifting to a new challenge, or wanting to stretch my skillset. All have required a whole lot of hustle (I haven’t taken a vacation without working at least a little bit since 2012).
These choices have also let me have the life I want, and not just the job—although often the job, too. And this is where the narratives about ambition, at least for me, have always felt a little too simple. I want to be excellent at what I do. I want to achieve highly, and I am often disappointed in how little I feel like I have achieved, and occasionally professionally envious of those who have done so much more so much better. Anything I do I try to do well, but I don’t want to achieve highly at just anything, and power and money are not my primary metrics of success (if that were the case, I’d be a law firm partner right now and definitely not hustling for subscriptions on Substack). My work is absolutely a cornerstone of my identity and something that brings profound meaning and purpose to my life, but it is not the only marker of my identity, nor my only source of meaning and purpose. I don’t live to work, but I also don’t work to live; I have very intentionally and painstakingly (and often financially insecurely) set up my life so that I dedicate most of my energy to work that I hope does some good in the world, while giving myself broad latitude and freedom to enjoy life off of a laptop. I realize that is rare, and lucky, and the outcome not just of personal choice but also of a series of unearned privileges.
Is that ambition? Anti-ambition? The illusive “balance”?
I don’t think most people would look at a man in my position and deem him either distastefully career-driven or less than ambitious. I think he would just be professionally dedicated, curious, and, yes, ambition-driven, without any of that saying anything in particular about working men as a whole. And that would be just fine.
Jill Filipovic is a Brooklyn-based journalist, lawyer, and author of OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind and The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.
This post originally appeared on her Substack on February 2, 2023.