The “Women, You’re Fucked” genre of media troll-piece is one of the most flexible and expansive in existence, within which the “Work/Life Balance” subcategory consistently brings in terrific numbers, and if you hit the trifecta of “Harvard” + “Straights Only” + “My, Isn’t It Authoritative When I Say the Names of Different Generations,” well—you’ve got an article that’s just bound to be read.
Today, we’ve got another addition to the pantheon, with an article that my Garbage Sixth Sense can feel getting linked on anxious mom emails, on loosely riffing think-pieces, on personal essays stretching out into trash-time immemorial. “More Than Their Mothers, Young Women Plan Career Pauses,” says a New York Times Upshot article, which dimly connects the dots between survey data, easy generalization and half-hearted anecdote without ever placing individual agency clearly or invoking the structural context that guides all three.
It starts with an anecdote of a young woman named Yi Gu—make sure you don’t only talk to white people, you can hear the editor P.S.-ing—who began thinking about having a flexible career as early as college, and who transitioned from banking and consulting to corporate strategy just as she decided to get pregnant at age 31. “The definition of work-life balance keeps on changing,” Yi Gu says. Totally, girl: there are some years when you’re all, “My ferrets really need me” and some years when you’re all, “Going to Vegas in my spaceship” and some years when you’re all, “I’m pregnant with so many ferrets that it’s affecting my 401(k).”
Here’s the article’s thesis:
The youngest generation of women in the work force — the millennials, age 18 to early 30s — is defining career success differently and less linearly than previous generations of women. A variety of survey data shows that educated, working young women are more likely than those before them to expect their 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 more likely than their predecessors to plan to scale back at work at certain 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.
You will notice how studiously this nut argument, like the article that follows, avoids any mention of the larger economic context that defines the life of women age 18 to 30—the recession that we graduated into, the stagnant wages that trailed it, the larger shift of the economy to insecurity-predatory “flexible” jobs, the fact that health care’s somewhat of a luxury and it’s impossible to buy a home in a major city without family cash.
Rather, the idea here is that women are both vaguely responsible for and not-responsible for the fact that they are less able (or is it willing?—the author doesn’t quite care to elaborate) to work and also live. In the next paragraph, there’s a survey of college-educated professionals who “said they saw their parents struggle while working full time or leave the work force altogether, and wanted a different option.” The overarching idea is that young people deviate from their parents’ life patterns, and that they are responsive to the environment at hand. A truly new concept—as is the possibility that young women might think about the future and adjust their choices accordingly. “You might call them the planning generation,” says the Upshot, nailing it.
Here’s the most interesting statistic—and again, note its narrow purview:
A survey of Harvard Business School alumni, released as part of the school’s new gender initiative, found that 37 percent of millennial women and 42 percent of those already married planned to interrupt their career for family. That compared with 28 percent of Generation X women and 17 percent of baby boomers.
The next sentence carries the only mention of the economy: “The surveys also revealed that some younger women believe today’s economy has made it harder to be a working parent.”
My dawgs, this is truly untenable. Some younger women believe. FOH! The average cost of childcare, adjusted for inflation, rose more than 70 percent from 1985 to 2011—and low-income families on average give up almost 40 percent of their income to childcare expenses (not, again, that this article makes mention of low-income people, or any of this, at all.)
And also, this Harvard Business School alumni survey is not a historical data set, taking stock of female graduates at the moment they graduated in 1970 or 1985 or 2010; rather, it retroactively asked alumni what they remember about their expectations at the time they graduated. It seems sensible to the point of not worth discussing that the baby boomers would both have had economically and politically-boosted expectations and that they’d remember them as such.
But what about young women? Are they giving up? No, I think they’re just doing what women have always done, which is work around and within their economic and political and cultural context—the last of which has enlarged to include this beautiful genre of have-it-all thinkpieces that, by refusing to discuss, say, subsidized daycare or paid maternity leave, make the strongest case of all for why we can’t.
Contact the author at email@example.com.
Image via Universal