Stew Friedman calls the term “work/life balance” passé.
“It conveys a zero-sum tradeoff, which makes it the completely wrong metaphor,” says the professor at the Wharton School of Business and founding director of Wharton’s Work/Life Integration Project.
Redefining career and family in more holistic terms (hence the term “integration”) will become critical as more Millennials enter the workplace. With skepticism stoked by the economic bust and a brewing distaste for the 24/7 business culture, today’s young graduates are speaking loudly about their reluctance to follow in their frenzied parents’ footsteps. According to Friedman’s survey of the Wharton class of 2012, more of today’s graduates plan to just say “no” to children than students who took the same survey back in 1992 – an advent that promises to have significant impact on businesses for years to come.
Friedman’s findings were detailed in his new book, “Baby Bust; New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family.” And he has some strong advice for employers about what it will take to help these young people be successful as parents and employees – and why it matters.
So what’s fueling the Millennial attitudes about family, and why is it crucial for organizations to take note? We spoke with Friedman to find out.
Solutions at Work Editor: What was your reaction to the results? What do you think is behind it?
Stew Friedman: I was shocked. But young people are seeing constraints that previous generations didn’t. They’ve grown up with more stress. They’ve been expected to achieve at a much younger age. Factors have emerged that are new and that have to do with the digital revolution, the economy, and the nature of work. I think we’re seeing a backlash against technology and a movement to get away from the strain and distraction from the sublime aspects of living. Millennials are hungry for a greater sense of meaning.
SE: What does that mean for employers?
SF: On one level, it’s a cultural problem — young people anticipate greater conflict between work and life. There’s not a ubiquitous sense of being able to have it all. And that’s having an impact on the choices Millennials make. On a different level, there are economic consequences. If you look at places like Japan, you’re seeing nations that have low birthrates and that are going to be challenged to keep up with their employment needs.
SE: What can employers do to respond?
SF: I have recommendations about what companies should be thinking about. People need help feeling they can be successful in business and as parents. And companies can help with that. They need to focus on results – to be really clear about the results they want people to pursue and then give people the flexibility to achieve those results. And they need to take work and life out of the women’s ghetto. We need to make this a human and not a women’s issue. It needs to be understood for what it is — a general cultural, social, economic, and political issue.
SE: How do we do that?
SF: Social policy and organizational practices need to change to reflect today’s society. Today’s policies are built to support the single-earner model with mom at home and dad at work. And that’s just not the norm anymore. There has been a progression of women in the professional business world. And that’s changed so much not just in terms of the single-earner model, but in how men see their roles both domestically and in business. Men are more interested in being engaged fathers. So bringing men into the conversation is absolutely critical. The conversation needs to be in a language that’s accessible to their social identity, and that includes focus on leadership, performance, and results – on their ability to improve performance in all areas of their lives.
SE: Specifically, what kind of shifts need to occur?
SF: Child care is a very big part of what business leaders can do. We need to make it possible for people to work and have families. And child care is a huge barrier for so many people. So, let’s provide it. And government needs to be involved to support that, just as we do K–12.
On a societal level, we need to get away from the culture of overwork. And we need to get rid of the flexibility stigma – the stigma that says people who take advantage of those flexibility options are less than “A” players, that they’re not committed.
Finally, we need to get back to the language issue – it’s about harmony and integration, not balance. Employers are resisting balance. In a time of great strain on resources, when it’s harder and harder to do more and more with less and less, the term “balance” implies to most employers that employees want to take more. I’m trying to help companies see that’s not the case, and to see the realistic policies that don’t focus on work and life as being separate and always competing in a zero-sum game. They can be mutually enriching, if managed right.
SE: Any final words on the subject?
SF: I imagine biological urges will compel many of these young people to ultimately have children. Let’s help them succeed. Let’s provide child care. Let’s make generous family leave a reality. Let’s think about what’s possible, not about what is. And let’s take actions that are good for all of us in every area of our lives — for our companies, families, communities, and ourselves.