Forget the glass ceiling because it’s about to become irrelevant. Not because women are finally going to get to the top of Fortune 500 companies in forces of more than two companies at a time. That may happen, but no one’s holding their breath. The glass ceiling is going to become irrelevant because the women who are coming into the workforce now see what’s above that glass and they are uninterested.
Recently I got a peek into the world above the glass ceiling when I read a profile of Jeff Immelt, chief executive of GE. Immelt said that he has been working 100-hour weeks for the last twenty years. He also said that he married a co-worker and they have an eighteen year-old-daughter. It is unclear to me why anyone would aspire to this life. If I were his daughter I think I’d feel neglected. And if I were his wife, I think I’d feel like a single parent with great alimony. If this is life above the glass ceiling, I think it’s absurd.
By definition the glass ceiling only exists if someone is below it, longingly looking up. And soon, there won’t be anyone left looking up. There is a broad disenchantment with corporate life that is gaining force among young workers. A new definition of success, that includes taking part in the unglorified daily tasks of raising kids, does not accommodate dreams of crashing glass ceilings.
So it is no surprise that five years after earning an MBA, 40% of women are working from home. Often the press writes about this statistic like it’s a travesty, but I think it’s great. It’s an achievement that these women have decided they can find success on their own terms instead of having to fit themselves through paths that were established for men, decades ago.
The disenchantment with corporate life is not limited to women: eighty percent of men aged 20 to 39 said that a flexible job to accommodate kids takes a higher priority than doing challenging work or earning a high salary. And this trend is growing: Study after study shows that one of the defining traits of generation Y is that they are determined to not give up their personal life in order to get ahead at work.
Instead of aligning yourself with people who are giving up everything in their personal life to “get to the top,” be one of the people who is redefining success. You can decide what is success for you. Don’t be sucked into the idea of success as defined by the men who constructed the glass ceiling. After all, their lives included little room for passionate interests outside of work, only ceremonious parenting, and a wife who managed everything about that man’s personal life.
That vision of success sounds quaint and outdated, but look, Jeff Immelt is still living that life. And so are the majority of his peers (although it’s hard to believe many others are living it to the extreme that he is).
Maybe, in ten years, there will be no one left to march up the stairs to the glass ceiling. Maybe it will be like the tree falling in the forest: No one will see it, so it will be as good as non-existent.
People used to think that the revolution would happen above the glass ceiling, as more women pushed their way to the top. In fact, though, the revolution is happening below the glass ceiling, where people are reestablishing their priorities. Kids and ambition can co-exist beneath the glass ceiling. Plenty of ambitious people have grand, remarkable achievements without giving up a vibrant personal life. Why would anyone aim for anything else?