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Careers Outside The Narrow Path

Contributor: Connie Gersick, Ph.D., Yale School of Managment

We have certain phrases in life that kind of—make us up. Mine was, “I can’t.  I can’t do  anything.“ (laughs)  Over and over, I’ve proved myself the opposite!  I’ve been able to do things I thought I could never do. … I never thought I could do the work that I’m doing.  And the children that I have!   I just never imagined it’d be so great!     —Olivia at 51[1]                                                                                      

In his new book, Baby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family, Stewart Friedman presents the stunning discovery that, among graduating seniors in Wharton’s 2012 college class, only 42% (of men and women) plan to have children—half the percentage who took the same survey in 1992. This is not because they don’t want to become parents, but because they feel they must “conform to a narrow set of career paths”[2] that will not permit it.

As a teacher, mother and grandmother who cares about young people, I find the revelation heartbreaking.  Not everyone wants or needs to have children, or to pursue an involving career.  But when so many feel these deeply human experiences to be mutually exclusive, something is very wrong.  As a social scientist, I see Friedman’s finding as an urgent challenge.  What do we know, what can we learn and how can we communicate it, to provide young adults with far better options?  How can we help foster the changes needed to give them (justifiable) confidence that they may do things that they now believe—as did the successful woman quoted above–they “could never do”?

Friedman reports that Millenials are actively willing to try out new models of family and work.[3]  If this is correct, then we have arrived at a crossroads of spectacular need and opportunity for change.  In fact, resources like the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, the Families and Work Institute[4], and Catalyst[5], along with voluminous research by scholars such as Bailyn, Galinsky, Hewlett, and Valian–to name only a few–offer a wealth of evidence-based recommendations for pulling outdated organizations into alignment with the needs of today’s workforce, both in terms of the way work is done and in the way careers are permitted to grow over the long term.

Many approaches are required, but I believe that if we wish to encourage change we need to significantly broaden our understanding of the meaning of work across the life span.  We need to provide alternatives to the “narrow set of career paths” that confine the imaginations of both individuals and institutions.   Friedman’s new study is a wonderful step in that direction, and it begs for more.   Currently, we have almost no research that illuminates the personal experience of careers beyond young adulthood and into middle age—a time span through which profound change and development can occur.   For the past several years, I have been immersed in a study of forty women from four occupations and a range of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.  Their biographies, recounted from childhood to their mid forties and fifties, demonstrate how much room there is for variation, uncertainty, flexibility, delay and misstep on the way to rewarding work—given certain key opportunities.  These ordinary / extraordinary women’s lives veer far outside the polarized debate that has sprung up between “Leaning In”[6] and “Women Can’t Have It All, And Shouldn’t Even Try.”[7]

My study participants grew up in a culture even more confining than that described by Wharton’s 2012 graduates.   As children, their generation largely assumed that men would focus on breadwinning, while women (who might work outside the home, but in jobs, not careers) would concentrate on family.  Baby Boomers became pioneers inventing new career journeys and new ways to combine work and family, often with the support of spouses, mentors and employers.  Now they are nearing retirement, and the results of their important choices are in.  The learning they offer is immense. We can see the new pathways they carved out, the ways they managed their doubts, what helped them along and how they recovered when they got lost.  Importantly, we can see the rewards that delighted them as they exceeded their own expectations.

Capturing the underlying structure in these women’s lives was extremely challenging because of the incredible diversity in their histories.  They found their métiers at ages ranging from 6 to 50; they became mothers any time from their teens to their forties or not at all; they did or did not take time out from careers, at varying moments and with varying results.  Patterns emerged only when I stopped looking for the conventional signs of career progress and turned to Levinson’s definition of the successful life structure as one that is “suitable for the self and viable in the world.”[8]   These criteria suggested two dimensions for capturing career development: the degree to which a woman was clear about what she wanted to be (Vocational Identity) and the degree to which she was proactive in moving to get there (Navigational Control).  These measures formed the basis of a two-dimensional grid on which each woman’s starting position could be located, and then the major changes she made as she moved from adolescence to the present could be tracked.   After all forty women’s journeys were mapped, six distinctly shaped career “trajectories” emerged, each with its own particular challenges.

The study’s findings contrast sharply with the notion that in order to succeed, people must know clearly in advance where they want to go, and must be vigilantly strategic about getting there.   Defined goals and well thought-out plans were not always best.  Alongside those who did well by the conventional wisdom, there were women who benefitted by loosening the focus of their ambitions, women who found fine careers by trial and error, and women who thrived on improvisation.

The six trajectories are illustrated in “Getting from ‘Keep Out’ to ‘Lean In’: A New Roadmap for Women’s Careers.” The paper also explores the pervasive role of confidence in women’s development, and offers a set of implications for individuals and institutions.  This forum is not the place to go into detail.  But I do want to emphasize the sharp contrast between the imagined futures of new college graduates who fear their careers will rule out family–with the experience of a generation who began adulthood with at least as many constraints.  These women’s stories suggest the possibilities of a much richer, more adventureous, more complicated and more forgiving reality.


[1] Pseudonym.  Quote from Gersick, C. 2013  “Getting from ‘Keep Out’ to ‘Lean In’: A New Roadmap for Women’s Careers”

[2] Friedman, S.  2013  Baby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family  Wharton Digital Press  page 5

[3] Friedman, op cit

[6] See Sandberg, S., with Scovell, N.  2013  Lean In  location 118, Kindle edition  New York: Alfred Knopf.

[7] Leibovich, L.  9/30/13  “Debora Spar, Barnard President, Says Women Can’t Have It All — And Shouldn’t Even Try” The Huffington Post


[8] see Levinson, D.  1996  The Seasons of a Woman’s Life  New York, Knopf.  pp. 28-29.




  1. Martha Miller says

    I think this is a crucial dialog. Many, many of the men and women I talk with who have important jobs in the private sector tell me behind closed doors that they are struggling with balancing work and life. Demands for 24/7 accessibility and instant response times are ridiculous! The human body—let alone our social systems!—are not designed for this. The industrial and electronic revolutions have made us unwitting Guinea pigs in a massive experiment. I think it high time to address the unconsciously created dynamics and get smarter about all this—along the lines that Gersick outlines here and in the articles she cites. This seems to me essential for our individual and collective health.

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