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‘Glass Ceilings and 100-Hour Couples’ challenges workplace culture to accommodate parents

Modern parenthood is fraught with complexity, sacrifice, and relentless scrutiny, and working mothers take the brunt of it. If you work, your home life gets stretched thin. But if you don’t work, your finances take a hit you may never recover from, never mind your job skills and identity outside of the domestic realm.

In 2003, the New York Times explored an unexpected demographic ripple presented by Generation X mothers: Highly educated women were “opting-out” of careers to stay home. The “Opt-Out Revolution” suggested that a generation of women raised by working mothers was saying no thanks to the fruits of feminism.

However, Macalester College professors Dianne Shandy and Karine Moe suggest this is less a backlash against feminism then a rejection of a workplace culture that demands that employees, male and female, give at the office till there’s nothing left to give at home. Their new book, “Glass Ceilings and 100-Hour Couples: What the Opt-Out Phenomenon Can Teach Us About Work and Family,” follows several families as they try to create feasible work solutions. The writers, who are both parents, jointly answered my questions via email.

MinnPost: How does the current economy impact the “opt-out” generation?

Dianne Shandy and Karine Moe: Women may be heading back to jobs or returning to full-time positions instead of part-time positions out of economic necessity, but when the economy gets back on track we will once again face a very tight labor market. If conditions for working parents do not shift, we could expect to see a repeat version of the opt-out phenomenon.

MP: How will this impact young people who are coming out of college now with poor job prospects?

DS/KM: Layoffs and downsizing loom large as workplace problems, and recent college graduates face an incredibly bad job market. Given this fear of job loss, workers may not voice their concerns about the struggles of managing family and work. But this does not mean that those struggles are any less real. The pressures facing working parents have not disappeared. If anything, those stresses that we identify in our book have intensified, as many employers cut back on the forward movements they’ve made toward creating a more flexible workplace.

In time though, the economy will rebound. Eventually the baby boomers will retire. When they do, we can expect to see extremely tight labor markets in the United States, and working parents may be able to wield more power to effect change in the workplace.

MP: Is positive change in working conditions possible in an environment in which people are grateful to merely have a job at all?

DS/KM: Why not? If you cannot give your employees a raise, why not give them some flexibility with hours, the option to telecommute, or even to job-share? It is true that firms have cut back on these types of programs, but the employers that keep them will find themselves in a stronger position when the economy recovers. There is evidence that programs like on-site day care considerably improves worker productivity, for instance. Firms that continue to strive to create a workplace that accommodates those with care obligations at home will inevitably end up with a stronger and more flexible workforce.

At one of our book events an audience member questioned why programs devoted to work-life balance had to be on the chopping block when there were so many other areas in which to cut, such as executive pay.

MP: In many communities, two incomes are essential even for a modest standard of living, due to stagnant wage growth for men as well as women. Why do choices available only to wealthy, educated women get so much attention?

DS/KM: We agree that for many families, two incomes are essential for even a modest standard of living, and we launch our book by noting that this financial imperative is central to any discussion of gender, work, and family. One of the first things we learned in our study, however, was that contrary to the sensationalized reports, many women who were downsizing or leaving their jobs are not so-called elite women. While the women we interviewed all have college degrees, their household incomes place most of them in the middle class.

Our study examined the experiences both of women who left their jobs and women who continue to juggle work and family. What we found was that the experiences of those who leave their jobs have much to teach us about the constraints all moms who remain in their jobs face. Whatever your income level, a sick kid is a sick kid and employees have limited options for juggling work and family under certain conditions. 

In short, there’s a lot more common ground in the barriers all those with care responsibilities at home face at work than is sometimes acknowledged. When we understand that these are issues faced across the economic spectrum, perhaps we can shift the conversation to how we might address these problems for all workers.

MP: Right now, many people see our work culture as having reached a breaking point in terms of family balance. What happens next?

DS/KM: As the fear of job loss recedes, we can expect to see workers once again placing pressures on employers to ease the untenable stresses facing working parents. Flexibility will become the catchword of successful business plans in the future. Flexibility can come in many forms, such as for example, flexible start and end times, telecommuting, job shares and reduced hours. As employers feel the need to tap the full potential of the labor force, they will find that providing a flexible workplace will allow them to attract highly talented and productive workers.

MP: Where do you see the greatest hope for change coming from?

DS/KM: We found that work-life balance is becoming increasingly important to workers in their 20s and early 30s. Our findings are right in line with recent surveys of MBA students who rank work-life balance among the three most important factors for career choice. We see significant shifts in what a growing proportion of younger workers, both men and women, are willing to sacrifice in order to get ahead at work.  And a particularly telling indication of change is that dads are beginning to join the clamor for more work-family balance.

Reading and Discussion
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