Careers interrupted

Beginning in college, years before she planned to have children, Ms Yi Gu began strategising about how to have a career that was flexible enough to fit in family responsibilities. She knew that arrangement was not realistic in her first two jobs: banking, in which she worked very long hours, or consulting, in which she travelled often. Instead, she saw those as preparation for the more flexible job she took last year at age 31, in strategy at a major pharmacy company. She became pregnant soon after.

"The definition of work-life balance keeps on changing," she said. "Out of business school, not being married and not having kids, anything less than 80 hours a week to me was balanced. Then in consulting, it was if I travelled or had time during the week to hang out with friends. Now with a kid, the definition has changed again."

The youngest generation of women in the workforce - the millennials, aged 18 to early 30s - is defining career success differently and less linearly than previous generations of women. A variety of survey data show that educated, working young women are likelier than those before them to expect career and family priorities to shift over time.

The surveys highlighted that two generations after women entered the business world in large numbers, it can still be hard for women to work. Even those with the highest career ambitions are likelier than their predecessors to plan to scale back at work at times or to seek out flexible jobs. You might call them the planning generation: Their approach is less all or nothing - climb the career ladder or stay home with children - and more give and take.

In surveys of millennials who are college-educated professionals by the Centre for Talent Innovation, a research group, the young people said they saw their parents struggle while working full-time or leave the workforce altogether, and wanted another option.

"They felt as if they were learning from generations before them, and saw all of the downsides in both choices," said Ms Laura Sherbin, the centre's director of research. "Millennials are looking for more of a balance."

A survey of Harvard Business School alumni, released as part of the school's new gender initiative, found that 37 per cent of millennial women and 42 per cent of those already married planned to interrupt their career for family. That compared with 28 per cent of Generation X women and 17 per cent of baby boomers.

The surveys also revealed that some younger women believe today's economy has made it harder to be a working parent. In the Harvard survey, fewer young women than older ones said they expected to successfully combine work and family or have a career equal to that of their husbands.

Half of women 30 and younger said they thought their gender was a disadvantage at work - equal to the share of baby boomers who said the same. Women were less likely than men to say they were satisfied with their careers.

A study of women graduating from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found that while 78 per cent of the business school alumnae in 1992 said they planned to have children, that share had dropped to 42 per cent by 2012.

In some cases, they did not want to, and in others, they did not think they could make it work because of a lack of organisational support, according to Mr Stewart Friedman, director of Wharton's work/life integration project.

That belief extends beyond the narrow world of business school alumnae. A broader Pew Research Centre study found that 58 per cent of working millennial mothers said being a working mother made it harder for them to get ahead in their careers, compared with 38 per cent of older women.

"With the boomers, there was a real ascendance in this idea of having very egalitarian partnerships and the ability to have high-powered careers, and that has diminished with Generation X and even more so with this millennial generation," said Ms Colleen Ammerman, assistant director of the Harvard gender initiative.

Harvard Business School alumnae are an elite group on an ambitious career path. And they are also likely to earn enough that their partners would not need to work. Young women do not seem to be lowering their ambitions - or "leaving before you leave", as Ms Sheryl Sandberg described it in "Lean In". Their career goals, and their accomplishments in the years just after business school, were indistinguishable from those of men. Rather, they say, they are thinking ahead to potentially tough decisions.

"Just as we look at strategies of companies, a lot of Harvard Business School people are putting together strategies for their lives," said Ms Cheryl Han, 33, an alumna of Harvard Business School and co-founder and chief executive of Keaton Row, a fashion start-up. "If I build that into my strategy, then I won't feel like I failed, and maybe it makes you feel more certain about your future."

Their approach is different from that of women who paved the way for their generation to enter the upper tiers of business. Baby-boomer women were the first to work in professions in large numbers, and they were less likely to say they planned to interrupt their careers and more likely to say they expected to successfully combine their work and family life.

Younger women say they learnt from the experiences of older generations and are determined to avoid their pitfalls. They are much more likely than women in older generations to say that women in senior leadership are critical to their success, both in navigating their careers and in figuring out how to incorporate family responsibilities.

By age 30, nearly half of the women in the Harvard study who were married said they had chosen a job with more flexibility, 26 per cent had slowed down the pace of their career and 9 per cent had declined a promotion because of family responsibilities.

Expectations have declined: 66 per cent of millennial women said they expected their careers to be equal to those of their spouses, compared with 79 per cent of baby boomers. Three-quarters of millennial women said they expected to succeed in combining career and family life - that is a drop from the 86 per cent of baby-boomer women who said the same.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 02, 2015, with the headline 'Careers interrupted'. Subscribe