7 Ways Millennials Can Change the Lack Of Work-Life Balance in America

Last week, I had the privilege of attending a lecture featuring Dr. Anne Marie-Slaughter, the Princeton professor now world famous for her summer 2012 article, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All."

She was joined by Andrew Romano, a senior writer at Newsweek and The Daily Beast, who graduated college in 2004 and then went on to write a noted piece about rethinking masculinity. With all the recent chatter around “leaning in,” Princeton husbands, work, family, and the impossibility of having it all, I've been wondering about the value of this preponderance of (often unsolicited) advice for my generation.  As it turns out, if what I gleaned from the wise Dr. Slaughter is true, we're the ones who hold the key to turning around the glaring imbalances between work life and home life in this country, especially where gender is concerned. Here are some ways to get started:

1. Start caring about care

One of the major obstacles to striking a balance between career and family is that we, as a society, don't care enough about care.  If you have kids, figuring out what to do with them while you're at work is your problem, and something that you can outsource to a nanny or daycare center if you're able to afford it. But in countries like Japan, care (in this case, for one's elders) is even a form of currency. If the collective "we" put more of an emphasis on personal well-being, employers might be more understanding when personal obligations need to trump work obligations.

2. Prepare men for rapidly expanding social sector careers

Andrew Romano asked us to think about the HBO Girls archetype of the modern man: sitting around smoking pot, unable to find work, little more than a Judd Apatow caricature. Part of the issue is that during the recession and in light of technological developments, many of the traditionally male-dominated industries have significantly contracted and left a lot of unemployed and skill-deficient men on the job market.  Young men looking to [re]join the work force ought to consider training for the jobs that are now flourishing, many of which are in traditionally female-skewing fields like healthcare and social assistance.

3. Understand that the C-suite gender imbalance is not just a class issue

During the Q&A, one audience member asked pointedly why the idea of a family with two working parents was suddenly such big deal, when among lower-income families it would be unheard of for every capable adult not to work outside the home. But Dr. Slaughter said that thinking about class in this context is almost tantamount to changing the subject. She points out that even among middle to upper class, predominantly white Ivy League graduates, there is still a staggering gender imbalance at the highest levels of Corporate America. While women have begun to outperform and outpace men in terms of college acceptance and graduation, only 20% of top executives are female, and that figure has remained stagnant for 20 years. It's up to millennial women from all backgrounds to try to even the score.

4. Change the way you talk to and about men who happen to be both fathers and employees 

We have the opportunity to reframe the way we talk about working parents. Dr. Slaughter issued a challenge to each of us: going forward, say "working father" just as often as you'd say "working mother." For too long the assumption has been that fathers work (of course!), so the qualifier was only germane to mothers. Let's either write it out of the vernacular or apply it universally.

5. Look abroad for alternate, successful models

While this country has certainly come a long way from the stereotype of the 1950s housewife, we are light-years behind countries that have formally institutionalized a more egalitarian system. In Sweden, for example, working parents are entitled to sixteen months paid leave per child, the cost burden of which is shouldered between the employer and the state. And it’s not just for women: to encourage more fatherly involvement, two of those months are reserved for the “minority” parent (most often the father), and there is apparently a lot of social pressure for Swedish men to fully avail themselves of this benefit.

6. Understand that when policy changes, attitudes change, and then society changes

Dr. Slaughter drew an analogy to smoking: when she was growing up, it was more than socially acceptable, it was in fashion (her mother would even put bowls of cigarettes around the table at dinner parties).  Within a generation or two, a stigma has set in and policy has been implemented, leaving smokers huddled in the cold outside bars/their offices.  While we can certainly attribute this fundamental shift in public opinion to revelations about the health risks involved, we can also see the ways that laws against smoking in public have changed the stakes.  While not an apples-to-apples comparison, we can still extrapolate that if there were to be major policy changes around paid leave (and yes, paternity leave), the stigma against stay-at-home dads and working, executive-level moms might start to erode.

7. Celebrate all the new definitions of family

When people talk about the work/family dynamic, they tend to make certain assumptions about the number and gender of caregivers involved. Millennials have come to embrace a more diverse picture that includes post-divorce situations, single-parent homes, adoptive and foster families, families with two moms or two dads, etc., etc., amen. And in these various arrangements, the responsibilities of breadwinning and caregiving take on new proportions that often have nothing to do with gender.  Ultimately, this will help to undo the centuries-deep ideals around who should be in the home versus the office, and in what proportion, so that responsibility and opportunity are more evenly distributed to all who seize them.