When Carin Rosenberg and Erik Lawrence got married, they had already done a lot of planning. They had a plan for a baby (lots of hands-on parenting) and careers (no out-of-control hours), and while each were earning advanced degrees, they had no plans for high-powered jobs.
For Generation X, super careers are out and shared parenting is in. What used to be mistaken for a “slacker” work ethic (by media dominated by workaholic boomers) is actually a generation-defining concern for work-life balance. A report from Catalyst says that professionals in Generation X “place more emphasis on personal goals than on those related to work.” Both parents expect to be closely involved with the children, and full-time childcare is widely rejected as not consistent with the core values of the generation.
When children enter the picture, there are three possible paths for dual-career couples:
First path is where one partner leaves the workforce to run the household. This is the path that made men’s careers soar for years, and it was the most popular choice when women had no choice. The second path is where both partners work full time and outsource running the household. This was a popular choice when women thought they could “have it all.” But the women entering the workforce today know better, and most want no part of that lifestyle which now appears to be impossible.
The third path is what Generation X aims for: Reconfigured work around the needs of family. According to Lisa Levey, Director of Advisory Services at Catalyst, most people starting out in their work life say they want a union of equal careers and equal parenting. But most people are unrealistic about what this setup requires. “This is a tough situation to establish because the paradigm has shifted but the jobs have not.”
Most career-worthy jobs are prepackaged for a 40 hour (or more) workweek, which makes little room for two careers and dual parenting. According to Levey, “Five years after business school, only 60% of women are working outside the home. Women look ahead and the path seems impossible. You can’t have two people gunning in their careers, and women are more likely to quit when there’s a problem.”
Phyllis Moen, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and author of the Career Mystique: Cracks in the American Dream, warns that “What happens with two high powered folks is that it becomes impossible and one bails out, typically the woman.” But she offers encouragement in that, “Cracks provide an opportunity, a way to rewrite the script. And Generation X is poised to do that.”
Levey offers a game plan: “You need good planning that starts in one’s mid twenties. You need to have a very substantial conversation about it.” When it comes to choosing a third path, “you have to really want it – seek it out, plan for it over a long period of time.”
That last piece of advice is difficult. Rosenberg and Lawrence know they both want to have family dinners, but neither is sure who will be home at 6pm to do the cooking. “We’ll talk about logistics when we are ready to have a baby,” says Rosenberg. But for optimum chance of success on the third path, the couple should talk about it way before they’re ready for a baby.
Here are some guidelines for early conversation and planning:
1. Build expertise to gain flexibility.
Moen reports that a lot of young people “Say they won’t go for high level jobs but will go for one that allow them to have more time. But that is shooting themselves in the foot because all jobs are demanding but some have more resources than others. If you think you are taking a job that would give you more time, talk to people in that job. We have in our mind that lower status or lower paying would be easier to balance, but this is not the case.
Levey recommends that you focus on building value. “It’s very hard to get a part time job off the bat. If you’re pregnant it’s late to think about part time. Usually you have to earn the opportunity to work part time. Work at the same company for a while, and develop a certain niche. Over time, you can craft something that will work for you.”
2. Live below your means and forget the big house.
If you choose an unconventional path then you need to expect your income to oscillate as each partner steps on and off different career tracks. Levey warns: “People get stuck because they can’t imagine decreasing their financial lifestyle.”
Moen zeroes in on the house: “The one thing that people seem to equate with adulthood is buying a house. In the past – for boomer generation especially – advice was to buy the best house you can afford. But now that house is an albatross, especially because today that purchase is based on two peoples’ salaries.”
Jessica DeGroot of the Third Path, and non-profit that coaches couples in creating a work-life balance says that in addition to homes, people also scale back vacations and maybe even family size in order to afford to reduce work hours.
3. Marry someone whose career aspirations are consistent with yours.
“If one person has a 60 hour/week job and one has a 40 hour a week job, the person with fewer hours at work will do most of the work at home,” says Moen. Similarly, if only one person has flexibility to come home when a child is sick, then that person will come home every time.
4. Talk all the time.
Most people know if the person they’re dating wants to have kids, and they have some sort of idea of how many and how soon. Most people also find out the career aspirations of the person they’re dating. But the intersection of kids and careers is usually in a don’t-ask-don’t-tell paradigm.
People say they can’t talk about how to manage kids and careers until the kids come because they don’t know what they’ll want. But you could say that about everything. And you don’t. So when it comes to the combination of kids and careers, you don’t have to have the perfect answer, but you have to have something you’re shooting for, together, or you won’t have any control over the direction you’re going.
This is true when you are dating, but it’s also true during the course of your whole relationship. An ongoing, engaged discussion of kids and careers is the best way to make sure they work well together for your family.