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Millennials are a Great Source of Optimism — Lisa Belkin

Contributor: Alice Liu Work and Life is a two-hour radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday from 7 pm to 9 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Lisa Belkin, recently named Senior National Correspondent for Yahoo! News. A reporter for social issues and trends, Belkin has shown herself to be one of the great chroniclers of the work-life revolution. She discusses the meaning and implications of the “opt-out” revolution, a term that Belkin coined in a New York Times story about 10 years ago. The following are edited excerpts of Friedman’s conversation with Williams.

Stew Friedman: You’ve been covering work-life issues since before everyone became part of the conversation. What’s changed since you first got into this game?

Lisa Belkin: Lisa BelkinSo much and yet not nearly enough. I think the biggest difference is that before, it was considered a mommy issue and a women’s issue, but now it’s considered a lot more of a worker’s issue for both genders.

SF: What are the big outcroppings in the world that give you confidence that such a shift really has occurred?

LB: Well about 5 to 10 years ago, men began to stand up about work-life issues and say, “Excuse me.” They have been saying it far more loudly recently, and they’re right. It wasn’t that men always had it all and women had to choose. Men had to choose too, but they often made different choices because society accepted certain options more than others for men. I have been correctly called out over the years for referring to “her” when really I should be referring to “us” – all of us: men and women.

SF: In your career chronicling the work-life revolution, what do you see as the greatest source of optimism?

LB: Millennials. I have great faith, or at least great hope, in Millennials. They tell pollsters that they are going to do things differently. They are going to select partners who want more equality at home, they are going to insist on more flexibility at work, they are going to choose jobs based on things that fulfill them and also allow them to have a life. They’ve seen their parents in positions where they realized that the job doesn’t love them back, and they’re determined not to fall into that trap, and to have a life outside of work. How they feel once they’re further down the road toward mortgages, children and responsibility is anyone’s guess, but they certainly have started out more determined to claim their own space in the world than any generation we’ve seen. At least they’re talking about it. My generation wasn’t, so I’m optimistic about what I see. There’s been some interpretation of this Millennial attitude as “entitled”, but I think that instead what we’re seeing is a new philosophy about the importance of work and family in their lives.

SF: In our Baby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family longitudinal study here at the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, we’ve found that Millennials are much less likely to plan to have children than the Gen Xers. One of the major findings is that so few people see a clear path forward with their careers that will allow them to have and take care of their children. Many of them are now consciously and deliberately opting out of parenthood.

LB: In a way that’s very sobering. I think that Millennials are probably looking realistically at the generation ahead of them and saying, “It was too hard, there is no role model for me – someone who did it and didn’t drive themselves insane in the process.” It makes me sad that there’s a generation that’s feeling trapped. However, I also suspect that in every generation until now we’ve had a good number of people who didn’t feel free to make the decision to not have children. It was an expectation, and although it has become less so with each decade since 1970, in some ways it is still an expectation. People still start looking at you and wondering “when” not “if.” But parenthood isn’t for everyone. In a way the Baby Bust: New Choices findings show that some people now feel freer to say, “Wait a second, let me take a realistic look at what I want out of life, as opposed to doing what I’m told I want out of life.” In that way it’s a good thing.

If you are a Millennial, do you anticipate opting out of parenthood or opting out of the workforce? If so, how do you plan on creating a new path that embraces both parenthood and work?  Join us in the comments section below with your thoughts and experiences.

Tune in to Work and Life next Tuesday, April 29 at 7 to 9 PM Eastern on Sirius XM Channel 111 for conversations with Prasad Setty, Google’s Vice President of People Analytics, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, President & CEO of New America Foundationand author of the ground-breaking article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” in The Atlantic.Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.

About the Author Alice LiuAlice Liu is an undergraduate senior studying Management at The Wharton School and English (Creative Writing) at the College of Arts & Sciences. 

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