It started out innocently enough: We were lounging in the sunshine with some girlfriends who, like us, were only days away from graduation.
Apropos the future, a popular topic, we asked our friends what they thought they would do when they had children. At first, they seemed confused. Could we clarify?
What we meant was, what would they do about their jobs when they had children, how would they make it work? We had expected answers involving words like “sharing,” and “flexibility,” or maybe even “sheer force of will.” Instead, our friends’ nearly uniform response was a fumbling explanation that they guessed they would take a couple of years off working. As in quitting? As in being a stay-at-home mom? What?
These friends of ours were intelligent, educated, and ambitious young women. None of them spoke about quitting with unequivocal enthusiasm, but rather with a reluctant sense of necessity. Never would we have thought that our peers considered their options so limited.
The crux seemed to be that most of these women (all of them middle or upper-middle class, in their early twenties) had been raised with stay-at-home mothers, and all of them believed that a parent staying home full time was the ideal childcare arrangement for young children. But why didn’t a single one of them mention the father of these future children when they talked about finding a way to balance their professional and personal lives? Why did they seem to think it was their burden to bear alone?
Riled up after our alarming lawn conversation, we tracked down some of our male friends and posed the same question to them: how did they expect to balance work and kids? Their responses were comically vague. The most common reference was to Little League, whatever that had to do with anything.
Then we asked some established professionals—mostly friends of our parents and older alumni—what would happen to an employee who took a few years of leave, and they told us such a move would likely stop a high-level career in its tracks. We poked around on the Internet and discovered that no American employer was going to grant a few years of parental leave anyway—they weren’t required to provide any at all, and the very best offered at most a couple of months, often to women only.
What started with a few questions about combining parenthood with a career snowballed into more and more questions about the day-to-day of corporate work culture in America—about flexibility (mostly rhetoric), about face-time (ubiquitous), about sick leave (not guaranteed) and vacation (an average of 10 days for the first five years).
As we contemplated our first post-undergraduate step, we suddenly felt like all the air had been let out of our balloon—our inflated collegiate egos a fine metaphor for the nation’s economy, we would soon discover. The new picture of working life that emerged was nothing like the one we had imagined. We thought we were going to have rocket careers, happy children, and passionate, supportive partners with stellar careers of their own. But when we tried to break all this down, it just didn’t add up. When, exactly, were we supposed to have children if 25-40 was when we had to prove ourselves at work? How were you supposed to bring kids up, if you and your spouse both work 50 hours a week?
We tried tinkering with various scenarios. What if you and your spouse work part-time while your kids are young, and then ratchet back up a few years later (you’ll have decades to catch up, after all)? No, we were told that scaling back, even for a short time, signals to employers that you’re not serious about your career, that you’re not interested in making partner, for example. Part-time wasn’t even an option in many jobs. But we do want to make partner! So do our friends, guys and gals alike! This work system was all wrong! As we prepared to receive our diplomas, we couldn’t shake the feeling that the game was rigged from the start.
Of course, our initial rock-star-by-30 outlook was incredibly naïve—but, admit it, you had similarly rosy expectations. Which leads us to another major realization we had: Our generation has a very poor sense of the options and limitations we’re likely to face, and how best to prepare for the work-life gauntlet. This is shocking considering how easily and routinely we research every other aspect of our lives (closest Thursday-night happy hour, cheapest flight to Kuala Lumpur, best hairdresser in a five-mile radius, etc.).
We found our collective cluelessness so surprising, and so disturbing, that we decided to do some research about how our generation, the so-called Generation Y, really sees the challenging dance move that is the work-life balance. We spent the year after graduation asking other college students and recent grads about what they were hoping for, professionally and personally, in their own lives and how they planned to achieve their goals. We traveled to New York, Madrid, Paris, Stockholm, and Moscow. We found interview subjects in bars and parks and online. We drank coffee in every café in Paris and beer in smoky underground members’ clubs in Moscow.
That’s right, it was a pretty tough life. We told our sponsors that this Grand Tour was about giving other young people the information we wish we’d had before graduating college, but really it was about blind self-interest. We were terrified. We figured we could at least learn from other people’s mistakes before we messed up our own lives. Maybe we could even help other Gen Yers in the process.
What we didn’t anticipate was that less than a year after we ditched our first job offers for tape recorders, a global financial crisis would spark a level of debate beyond our wildest dreams. We now live in critical times. The financial crisis in America and the consequent fallout constitute a potential paradigm shift. Suddenly, everything is up for debate. With men bearing the brunt of the layoffs, and taking it very hard, society at large is starting to question whether it’s healthy for one person to shoulder the financial well-being of an entire family.
With women becoming the sole-breadwinners in more and more families, the question of why women earn less than men—and what can be done about it—has new urgency. With people losing their jobs, and the benefits that come with those jobs, we’re starting to question whether an employer-based benefit system makes sense when a rapidly growing fraction of the workforce is freelancers and independent contractors. With finance disgraced, young people are wondering what careers will bring them respect and fulfillment. Tighter budgets have forced us, as individuals and as a nation, to think about what is really important. We’re at a point of transition. The question is: which direction should we go?
Our answer is simple: get on the lattice or die.
What the hell is a lattice? Bear with us for a bit. Surely, you’ve heard the term “the corporate ladder.” To succeed in a career you have to climb up the well-defined rungs of a ladder: Up, up, up, until—nope, just up.
The corporate ladder is a wonderfully clear visual—it’s also the epitome of inflexibility. There are really only two directions you can go on a ladder: up or down. There’s little room for sidesteps or pauses, let alone for backtracks.
Consider a Harvard study that surveyed alumni 15 years after graduation. They estimated the average financial penalty for someone who took a year and a half off and then returned to work. In medicine, that person earned 16 percent less than a similar doctor who had not taken time off, and that’s actually the lowest penalty—so keep at it pre-meds. Among graduates that didn’t get a graduate degree, the gap was 25 percent. For both lawyers and Ph.D.’s it was about 29 percent. And for people who work in finance and consulting, it was a whopping 41 percent.
And that’s for taking 1.5 years off. Not the two or three that our smart, ambitious girlfriends were talking about. Fifty-nine percent of an average finance salary is still a large chunk of change, even today, but what it means is that taking 1.5 years off puts you on a completely different track than the worker who managed, somehow, to stay on the ladder.
We might be okay with the inflexibility of the ladder model if we were guaranteed stability in exchange. That was the deal in past decades: Workers were often rewarded with a stable career and a gold watch at the end of a lifetime of loyal employment. But the working world we enter now looks very different from the one our parents entered then. The rungs of the ladder are not given; the ladder may in fact end, abruptly, after years of dedicated investment.
The reasons for the demise of the corporate ladder model are complex, but at the most basic level it comes down to flexibility. Our globalized, competitive world demands flexibility. Employers want to be fluid, hiring and firing with the market's increasingly fickle whims. For all the benefits of ladder careers in terms of stability and institutionalized knowledge, it’s just not flexible. So in the long run, it’s out.
What’s more, ladder careers only work for a tiny fraction of the workforce—the ever elusive “ideal worker.” The ideal worker can work all the time, year-round, and has few responsibilities outside of work. Guess what? The ideal worker is a man—a man with a stay-at-home wife to take care of everything else.
Perhaps our readers snicker at such a dated idea, but when you look at the corporate ladder world, it’s not set up for individuals to deal with family and personal responsibilities. Things like taking care of a sick parent or picking up your kids from school or even having kids for that matter! Nevermind that the ideal worker model is a recipe for a heart attack. Nevermind that in the past 30 years there has been a momentous increase in dual-earner households and single-parent families. Nevermind that today, the majority of college graduates are women. Companies still expect that a man with a stay-at-home wife will show up at the office.
Even if men still wanted to shoulder the financial burden of their family alone and women were dying to give up their careers to tend the hearth and all that, the Mad Men set-up just isn’t a possibility for 98 percent of us anymore. Most families need two breadwinners to pay the bills these days. That’s the 21st-century reality.
So, what is life like for dual-earner families in a corporate ladder world? First of all, get ready to put in a whole lot of hours. Over the past 25 years, the combined weekly work hours of dual-earner couples with children under 18 at home has increased by an average 10 hours per week, from 81 to 91 hours. At the same time, with anxiety about the future and getting into college at an all-time high, parenting has actually become more intensive. But the majority of employers still expect their employees to act as though they have no other responsibilities outside the office. It’s downright taboo to use a family commitment as an excuse in a work setting—it may be superficially accepted, but it’ll “mommy-track” you faster than you can say “Baby Björn.”
The U.S. government has been pathetically slow to respond to the changes in our society. Here’s a shocker: the U.S. is one of only four countries in the world—and we’re talking about the whole world, not just developed countries—that doesn’t guarantee some form of paid parental leave. The other three countries are Papua New Guinea, Lesotho, and Swaziland. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, employers in the United States have to offer 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave, but that only applies to employers with over 50 employees.
More importantly, who can afford to take unpaid leave? Workers aren’t even guaranteed any paid sick leave or vacation. In the 2011 study, “Failing its Families: Lack of Paid Leave and Work-Family Supports in the US,” Human Rights Watch calls a spade a spade: the situation for American families today is a human rights violation.
To give you some perspective, out of the top 20 economies in the world, 18 guarantee their workers at least 30 days of paid vacation. In Sweden, new parents have 18 months of paid parental leave, which they can split as they see fit and with two months reserved for the father. Sweden also guarantees unlimited days to take care of sick children. Yes, Sweden’s family policies are exceptional, but America’s stand out as being exceptionally bad.
Are we freaking you out? Don’t panic. We’re not going to lie to you: it is scary out there. And despite reading countless books and reports and articles on these issues, we haven’t come across one magic cure-all. The best antidote to the inflexible ladder culture we’ve found is embracing and pushing for a whole new culture: A lattice culture.
A lattice looks like several ladders combined into a sort of web. On a lattice, the possible path is not simply up or down like it is on a ladder. You can choose to move up, down, diagonal, to the side.
A lattice allows you to pause, to slow down, to switch jobs and fields more freely than a ladder does. The lattice is the model for a career track characterized by flexibility. And, ultimately, it is a model that takes into account the reality of modern workers. It means you wouldn’t have to completely get off track to fulfill your personal commitments or adventures.
Sounds great. But how do we get there?
The truth is that it's going to take serious changes to our current ladder culture, especially to the way we as a society think about work and career building, for a lattice lifestyle to be possible for a significant chunk of people. We're not there yet. Not even close. That said, there is hope.
There are people out there in the U.S. who, despite all odds, are successfully leading a lattice-like lifestyle. For example, bloggers Amy and Mark Vachon have recently come out with a book that is full of couples who rearranged their lives to make a lattice lifestyle work. Often this involves both people in a couple asking employers to go part-time or to flextime. Flextime means you work the same amount of hours, but you choose your own start and end times. It enables you to work four-day weeks, for example.
We have to be honest with you. These kind of arrangements are not possible for everyone. We talked to a computer programmer in Moscow who told his employer he would like to work from 7 to 3, instead of 9 to 5. His services were highly valued, the company had an accommodating outlook, and his employer agreed. On the other hand, a TV producer we talked to in New York asked his employer for extra vacation days instead of a raise and the employer flat out said, “Nope, against company policy.” Not all employers are going to be agreeable.
Switching to a lattice lifestyle, even if your employer is willing, also means readjusting your expectations. You really can't have it all, all the time. A flexible lattice lifestyle will probably mean that you earn less money, at least for a time. If you want to be the CEO of Coca Cola by the time you're 35, you can stop reading right now. It's not going to happen. We realize that someone has to be the CEO of Coca Cola. For now, that person is probably going to be a man with a stay-at-home wife. It's true: 97 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are men. Of the women CEOs, only 30 percent have children. But this doesn't have to be the case in the future. There are alternatives, even at the very top.
Take job-sharing, which we learned about while talking to a newspaper editor in Sweden. He shares his position with another person. When he went on paternity leave, the newspaper wasn't left scrambling because the top position wasn't in the hands of just one person. They were prepared. Another alternative we heard about was hiring temporary workers to fill in for those on leave; this way younger workers can cut their teeth in a position with real responsibilities and the company can have a test run to see if they are worth hiring full time.
In Europe, and especially in Scandinavia, whole societies are increasingly working together to make a lattice culture possible. The government guarantees generous leaves, and employers support these leaves with their own, internal policies. In France, freelancers pay into an unemployment fund, so that when they experience gaps in employment they too have a safety net.
In the U.S., we’re still scrambling. We still live in a ladder world. But in a society where golden watches and 40 years in one company are rarities rather than norms, where female labor-force participation and changing masculine expectations break down the model of the ideal worker, where people jump from job to job, and perhaps from field to field, where innovation and risk-taking are key to success, the ladder is outdated. The lattice is the present and future.
It would be nice if all of society recognized this. Because we can achieve so much more together than we can as mere individuals. It’s asking a lot for you alone to make demands of an indifferent employer, as opposed to if new national policies were backing you up. Without a doubt, America needs employment reform: universal health care, paid parental leave, sick leave, and vacation policies would be a good start.
But until our society gets its act together and offers workers and families those basic building blocks of a lattice lifestyle, individuals are going to have to make it work themselves. There is no blueprint for this. But after researching the hell out of these questions, and interviewing students as well as young and seasoned professionals for hours upon hours, we’ve come up with some basic advice.
You should do this early, preferably when you’re still in college, but it’s never too late. Research the hours and conditions required of the particular career you’re interested in and weigh that against what you want for your personal life. As work-life balance crusader Nigel Marsh said in his 2011 TED talk, “Certain jobs and career paths are fundamentally incompatible with being meaningfully engaged on a day-to-day basis with a young family." Think corporate law, management consulting, investment banking, CEOdom.
Be realistic. Talk to people you admire. Don’t just ask them about what graduate school they went to and how they got their first job, ask them about the challenges, ask them about how they balance their work and family lives practically and emotionally. You may not love what you hear, but you’ll learn.
Whether it’s being geographically mobile, or working in the outdoors, or having control over your time, or being in a position of power, or being a very present part of your children’s lives, or living lavishly. Be honest with yourself. Make sure you know what it is you want so that you don’t find yourself, 10 years down the line, with a life that doesn’t fit you. Again, be realistic. If having a flexible schedule is high on your list, for example, come to terms with the fact that you may not be able to have a professional career that gives you a great deal of managerial power. If you want to be a very hands-on parent, don’t count on being able to balance that with a 60-hours-a-week gig.
It can be a pretty awkward conversation to have, but it’s necessary if you’re going to be serious about somebody. Love works in mysterious ways, but love may not be enough if you find out, too far down the line, that your spouse has wildly different expectations when it comes to division of responsibilities at home.
Do your research, make a good case, and you may be surprised how much your employer will be willing to accommodate. You create value and employers really are loathe to lose a solid worker. Workplace culture can change. But it will take a critical mass of employees demanding more flexibility. Let’s each take one for the team, Gen Y.
Find out what a certain career will demand of you and how that weighs against your personal goals. Make sure you and your future partner are on the same page as soon as possible. Most of all, pause in the rush to excel that you’re caught up in, and ask yourself the important questions: What kinds of hours and working conditions come with the particular career I’m thinking of pursuing? What kind of standard of living do I want to have? What do I expect from a partner? What does he or she expect from me?
It’s a mistake we all tend to make, skipping over the tough questions, because, well, they’re hard. But, remember, articulating the question is the first important step toward finding the answer.
This excerpt is adapted from an essay that appears in the new ebook collection from Shareable Magazine, Share or Die, which is now available in paperback, Kindle, and iPad formats. A series of forays into uncharted territory, this graphically rich collection of essays, narratives, and how-tos is an intimate guide to the new economic order and a must-read for anyone attempting to understand what it means to live within the challenges of our time.