Lisen Stromberg is a culture innovation consultant, award-winning independent journalist, and the author of Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career. She recently sat down with Daniel Budzinski, host of The Dreamcast podcast for a conversation about millennial parenthood, what the gig economy is doing to how we raise our children, and what to do about it.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to Lisen and Daniel’s full conversation, click here.
Daniel: You’ve done a lot of interviews, surveyed a lot of individuals, specifically about integrating their kids into their careers. What has that shown you?
Lisen: I interviewed 186 women and surveyed 1,500 more. The only constraint I put on all of that was that they had actually gone to college and had children, because I wanted to find out, “How the heck are you doing it, ladies? I was just astonished to learn that three-quarters of the women are actually downshifting or pausing their career for a period of time. We used to call these women opt-out moms.
Opt-out moms were a big thing in the ’90s and early 2000s, these highly successful women abandoning their careers. Brenda Barnes was a hugely senior, successful [“opt-out mom”] who abandoned her career at PepsiCo. There’s a lot of controversy around this. Longitudinally, [however], if you actually look at what those women have done, they may have downshifted or paused their careers, but eventually they relaunched and went back into the workforce.
They rock it, but they’re rocking it despite the fact there’s a huge motherhood penalty, a huge penalty for flexibility, and a real bias towards that model of an ideal worker, meaning always available 24/7, never taking a break. But [these women are] still rocking it, and it was really inspiring to interview them and to find the research and to be able to share it.
Daniel: My wife used to work with me full time and she was my favorite and best employee. We had a blast together. [But] we had two kids, a one-year-old and a two-year-old, basically back to back. And it killed us to not [work together.] My wife wanted to work, but she felt like she had to choose, and she chose the kids.
Lisen: That’s what I [mean when I] talk about being shoved out, versus choosing to leave. In many ways, your situation is a classic example; my husband and I had the same situation when we had young kids. We both had really rocking careers. He was in tech, and I was in advertising, and things were going great. He was making about $75,000 more than I was, so after our second was born, it became clear that something was going to have to give.
So we sat down and did the analysis, and it made sense for us, as a family, at that phase of our lives, for me to downshift. I would have loved to have been in a workplace that actually said, “Hey, Lisen, these are some tough years. Why don’t we give you more flexibility with your hours? Why don’t we let you work part-time or maybe even jobshare or [come up with a solution to] be innovative about how we work together? Because we don’t want to lose your talents.”
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Daniel: If that was an option that you could’ve had, would you have stuck with it?
Lisen: No question in my mind. In fact, in the research, I found four paths that many women took after having kids. One [are those] who never downshifted. The second are those that I call cruisers, people who downshifted to work part-time or reduced hours. Third are the boomerangers, people who completely left the paid workforce but then boomeranged back to their same industry, same job function. And then there are pivoters, people like me who left one industry and pivoted to completely new things.
“64 million millennials are going to become parents within the next decade, so this is not a future issue. This is a today issue.”
Daniel: So tell me, which one would my wife fit into? As a millennial with several options, she opted to stay at home with the kids.
Lisen: Millennial women have been very clear saying that they really want to put their family first. Being a parent is one of the number one most important things that they report, again and again. So if that’s the value system what do we do? We’re going to lose the best-educated population we have. There are more college-educated millennial women than millennial men. They’re going to say, “I need to focus on my family,” and if we, as a workplace, aren’t saying, “Fine, go do what you need to do to follow your North Star, whatever that looks like. We’re going to welcome you back when you’re ready. We’ve got opportunities for you.”—we’re going to lose all that great talent.
The problem is, the workforce isn’t ready for that. There’s a lot of disparaging attitudes about people who downshift for family. That’s the thing that we need to overcome, our hidden biases around that.
Daniel: You’re absolutely right. If people are wanting to spend time with their family and make that a big priority, companies have to really recognize that, as a future issue.
Lisen: 64 million millennials are going to become parents within the next decade, so this is not a future issue. This is a today issue. We’re already seeing it.
In fact, millennial men are standing up and saying, “Hey, I don’t want my dad’s life. I don’t want to be working 24/7 and never see the kids or my partner. That’s not meaningful to me. What’s meaningful to me is to be able to be deeply engaged in my family and deeply engaged in my work. I’m really ambitious, and I want to rock it.” The workplace has to change, because millennials are just saying, “Yeah, that’s not going to work for me. I’m doing my thing.”
Daniel: What are some practical thoughts that you have for millennials on how to downshift in a way that still empowers them to be relentless in their careers? And what can companies do for parents?
Lisen: In 2015, Ernst & Young did a global survey of millennial men and the results for the United States were fascinating. These are college-educated, professional “white collar” workers. The men, more than the women, said that they were willing to take a pay cut, to pass on a promotion, to move for better work-life balance, and three-quarters of them had actually done it in the past three years.
Daniel: What do you think would have kept them? I want to drill down, because so many people define work-life balance so differently.
Lisen: In the research of the women who didn’t leave the workforce after having kids, a couple of things were true for them. One, they deeply loved their jobs. They were doing exactly what they were meant to do in the world. They felt that they could contribute, they had a seat at the table. And that’s hard to come by, right?
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The other thing is just having that opportunity to engage. We need to be able to change the current model of the ideal worker, which says you have to be available 24/7, you have to be able to travel on a drop of the hat, no flexibility, sorry, you can’t go to your kid’s baseball game. That’s just not realistic anymore.
Companies that have flexibility baked into their DNA and their culture create all kinds of freedom for people. The other thing that’s really powerful is just making sure [corporate] policies make sense. Do you have meaningful, paid maternity leave? Do you have meaningful, paid paternity leave? Do you actually have some kind of on-ramping for women who have paused? Are you supporting people with childcare? What’s your bias around getting women [who paused] back in the door? Can we get them back in? Can you support that?
“Companies that have flexibility baked into their DNA and their culture create all kinds of freedom for people.”
Daniel: What have you concluded about [us] moving into more of an Uber-esque economy, where [you can] log on when you want to log on, and log off when you want to log off, because it seems like people are wanting to be their own boss.
Lisen: The whole gig economy could [be] viewed as a boon for women who want to downshift their careers or guys who want to be more engaged fathers. It could be incredible, and there are good things around that. The problem is, we don’t have public policies that support that economy.
We don’t have national paid leave, so when we get pregnant, or our partners get pregnant, we have no way to pay for the time out. I interviewed a number of women who were gig workers, and they couldn’t take maternity leave because they weren’t earning income, and they couldn’t afford it.
Daniel: When you’re talking to companies, what are they saying?
Lisen: They’re telling me a couple things. One is that they’ve recognized there’s an issue, because they see that there’s a brain drain going on. They see the mid-career female professionals leaving.
And it feels a little generational, frankly, where these older—generally men—are saying, “Well, this is the way it’s always been done,” and the answer is, “Yeah, but if you want to actually retain people, you’ve got to rethink this.” So they’re getting kind of nervous, which maybe is a good thing.
Daniel: What kind of conversation can employers have with their employees who are mothers and mothers-to-be, and fathers-to-be?
Lisen: The conversation doesn’t begin when you’re suddenly on maternity or paternity leave. It begins when you start at the company. Companies need [to start asking] “How can we help you thrive in [this] environment?” And that is the beginning of conversation. The next phase of conversation is, “You’re at that child-bearing, child-rearing phase of your life. What do you think it might look like for you? How can we structure it for you that helps you thrive? What do you need?”
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And one step beyond that is, “You’re pregnant, you’re about to go on maternity leave. How can we support you? What do you think you’re going to need?” What I found fascinating is so many women said, “Everyone presumed I wanted something, and it was never what I really wanted.” For example, some women were frustrated that there was a presumption that they didn’t want to pause. Other women didn’t want to pause, they wanted to be all in, and there was this presumption that they did want to pause.
We’re all individuals; this is just about having conversations and saying, “What’s really going to work for you?”
“The conversation doesn’t begin when you’re suddenly on maternity or paternity leave. It begins when you start at the company.”
Daniel: I really do believe that people are the greatest investment in our companies, the greatest assets. So for parents that both want to have careers, for that conversation to work, it’s really a buy-in from both sides saying, “How do we make this work?” Because at the end of the day, someone’s got to watch the kids, and there’s got to be equal buy-in.
Lisen: The research showed me that the women whose careers suffered the most were the women whose partners weren’t committed to being equal partners on the home front. They didn’t have partners who said, “I’ve got your back. You’ve got a meeting on Friday, that’s okay. I can downshift my schedule on Friday to pick up the kids from daycare,” or whatever it was. In these cases, the women were forced to pause because their partners were overwhelmed by their own career.
The more we force women to be at home, the more we force men to stay at work. No one wins in that situation.
Daniel: And it’s going to take a lot of understanding on both sides. There’s a lot of moving metrics there for it to really be a great balance for everyone.
Lisen: The way I see it, it’s never going to be a balance. Because when you’re balancing, you’re actually pitting something against something else.
I am all about integration. Understanding that for the next 70 years, till the day you die, you’re going to have some kind of career, whether you’re in the paid workforce or not, just like you’re going to be a parent–assuming you’ve become that–until the day you die. If you view your career and your role as a parent as intertwined in the course of your lifetime, it’s a very different approach than saying, “Today, I need balance,” because no day is balanced.