In the Wharton Life/Integration Project, a research project by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, men and women in Wharton’s class of 1992 and class of 2012 were asked questions about how they thought their work and family would interact after they graduated.
The 20 years in between the two surveys have certainly wrought some significant changes. In 1992, 79% of men and 78% of women expected to have children. In 2012, those numbers dropped to 42% for both men and women who definitely wanted children — a far greater number of the survey participants answered “definitely not” or “probably not” in 2012 than in 1992.
Part of this striking shift may stem from the fact that the women and men surveyed attended the Wharton School, and are most likely very driven and ambitious people looking to enter the business world, which in the current economy has become more and more competitive. When faced with the choice between work and family in 2012, more and more of the graduates are choosing work. But their choice that may be a bellwether for the rest of millennials.
In an article for The Atlantic, Anne-Marie Slaughter notes that the Wharton study concludes that women and men are worried that having children would interfere with achieving success in their careers. Slaughter argues that the answer to the increasing difficulties balancing work and family “is to put our national obsession with work as the only measure of success and happiness into a saner and healthier perspective.”
Slaughter has been in the news before for her views on the work/life balance in the present day. Her 2012 article for the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” explained the difficulties of being a top professional and a mother through the lens of her personal story. Slaughter wrote about her decision to step down from her position as director of policy planning at the State Department to spend more time with her children (although she is still a full-time professor at Princeton), citing constant pressure to be working and inflexible schedules as some of the main reasons she left the State Department. Slaughter argued that in order to gain more women at the top of their professions, a restructuring of the American work culture was necessary.
On the end of the spectrum is Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, whose upcoming book, Lean In recently made the front page of the New York Times. Sandberg maintains that one of the most significant reasons that women are lagging behind in the workplace is not because they are struggling to maintain a balance between work and family, but because they expect and ask for less in the workplace.
No matter the reason, the fact remains that 21 of the top Fortune 500 executives are women, and women’s earnings were 77% of men’s in 2011. So women who want to get ahead in the workplace are putting off having families, or deciding not to have children altogether. And the problem of work/life balance is not just a women’s issue — in addition to the struggle the gender gap creates in the workplace, the struggle for financial security brought on by the current economy is also a factor in the choice of both genders to wait on children or to decide not to have any.
Society in many respects still expects women and men to have children, but the circumstances surrounding those expectations have changed. It’s becoming clear that at least some sort of choice must still be made between work and family, and more and more millennials are putting work first.