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.

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13 replies
  1. Dylan Tweney
    Dylan Tweney says:

    I recommend the book “The Four Thirds Solution” by Stanley Greenspan. In it he argues that what we should be aiming for in 2-parent households is that each parent works a 2/3 fulltime schedule, or about 25-30 hours/week. Then each parent spends the other 1/3 of the week at home with the kids, and you arrange the schedules so that there’s no overlap. That leaves just 1/3 of the week for childcare, which is actually good, because kids benefit from a reasonable amount of childcare too (for socialization reasons). If you can swing this kind of scenario it has all kinds of benefits: Children get to spend lots of good time with their parents, each parent gets to contribute to childcare, nobody’s working too much and yet both parents get to have careers, and you don’t have to spend excessive amounts on childcare.

    Not coincidentally, many companies that allow part time work only offer full benefits if you’re working more than 1/2 time — so a 2/3 schedule is enough to get you those all-important benefits too.

  2. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    The coming years will involve an interesting battle between employees and employers on the issue of flexibility.

    The Economist magazine believes employers will becoming increasingly less flexible because it isn’t working:

    But I agree with Penelope’s point one that the key to being able to negotiate a more family-friendly schedule is making yourself indespensable to the organization. To do that you need to hone special knowledge and skills, and produce quality work — and be likeable enough that people will want to make the flexible schedule work for you. If you have this going for you, official company policy on flexibility won’t necessarily matter.

  3. Dylan Tweney
    Dylan Tweney says:

    That Economist article really steams me. What world do they live in? I know a lot of people who are scaling back hours, keeping a lid on overtime, or dropping out of the alpha male/alpha female race altogether. Maybe that’s symptomatic of the crowd I run with but I see companies embracing flexibility more, not less. It does work, too.

  4. Sheamus
    Sheamus says:

    Lovely post!

    This ancient (yet gorgeous) guy found the post particularily useful is one context: It gives me an idea as to how I can redesign work (and hours) so that I can draw the very best young people who want (and need) flexibility / balance in their lives.

  5. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    Great post, Penelope. It’s tough to find good examples of balance here in Silicon Valley. Sure, there are plenty of parents who are very involved, but that’s usually because they’ve already made their $20 million–a solution that can’t possibly work for everyone.

    And if you start poking into the lives of the venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, you usually find a stay-at-home wife (or ex-wife).

    I wonder if there are different solutions in different industries and parts of the country.

  6. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Great comments.

    That Economist article that Wendy links to (in her comment above) is intersting because it focuses on the corporation and not the individual. I think it’s true that corporations are all talk no action when it comes to allowing for a scaled-back worklife.

    But this also explains an Economist cover that appeared a few weeks ago that declared a “war for talent” because of a large-scale worker shortage.

    I think the “worker shortage” is actually people like Dylan and Chris (above) who refuse to accept job offers that do not accommodate family.

    So it’s not that people are not working. It’s that they’re not working at the companies the Economist is writing about. For good reason.

  7. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    Good point, Penelope. If you look at labor force participation rates (the number of people aged 16 and over who work, or are looking for work), there are lots of people available. In major Canadian cities the participation rate runs at about 68-71%. I’d assume it’s about the same in the USA.

    This means there are millions of people available to work, many of them talented. Sure, some are too old, or are disabled beyond the point of being able to work. But the others might work if the right opportunity were there. Stay-at-home-parents of school-aged kids might work 2/3 time or 1/2 time for the right salary, flexibility and opportunity. People who have taken early-retirement could likely by lured back into the workforce on a part-time or contract basis.

  8. Karen
    Karen says:

    I can’t stand it! I think she’s taking potshots and calling it punditry so
    I’m taking the gloves off

    Here’s what my snarky side thinks of Ms.(snicker) Kellaway’s item

    1) Guess she got dumped again
    2) Couldn’t bake a cake to save her skin
    3) Trying to kiss up to her stodgy old bosses
    4a) Couldn’t negotiate her way to flextime in five years of trying Or 4b)
    Ran into the boss on the slopes one day when she was supposed to be “working
    at home”
    5) Too cheap to pop for high speed internet
    6) Has difficulty dressing for a casual workplace
    7) Since she got that great new iPod, thinks commuting is cool!

    Rrrr. Alright, ok, phew. It’s cocoa time for me

  9. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    This is a great post. The advice is as timely today as it was when this post was written. It’s one thing to understand the concepts written here and another to execute them effectively. The planning, communication, and flexibility necessary to make this all work out effectively requires implementation early on in a relationship. This plan should work with constant review and updating as life marches on. It’s definitely a plan to aspire to.
    I’m writing this comment as you are in divorce proceedings so it makes me wonder when is it too late to implement this plan. Therefore I will add that while certain advice is timeless that timing of advice is equally important. Maybe I’m just stating the obvious here but that has been my experience also.

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