We Are All Part of the Work/Life Revolution

The Twitterverse has been aflame with a lot of noise about Sheryl Sandberg, Anne Marie Slaughter, and Marissa Mayer. But a lot of this talk is knee-jerk criticism that misses the big picture: our nation’s failure to address the issue of integrating work and the rest of life has finally emerged as a critical economic, social, political, and personal issue affecting not only women, but all of us, and it’s capturing deservedly serious attention and accelerating experimentation with new models in our brave new world. For the first time in the 25 years since I’ve been studying the intersection of work and life, it’s now front-page news and everyone has an opinion — because for the first time everyone feels that they have a stake and a voice. It’s no longer only a women’s issue.

When Slaughter’s Atlantic piece — chronicling the difficulty maintaining a high-powered career while still being able to nurture her teenage sons — became the most read article in that journal’s history, the field of work/life, long in the shadows, catapulted to center stage. Then the Yahoo! controversies: first everyone had an opinion about Marissa Mayer as a pregnant CEO, then everyone had another opinion about her revocation of work-from-home policies. Now the brouhaha about whether or not Sandberg can or should speak for all women has turned the heat up further.

The key word there being heat; not light.

Each is speaking out, on the basis of her experience, about why and how change must come. As a life-long policy scholar, naturally Slaughter emphasizes policy. And as an employee and an employer, Sandberg naturally draws on her own experience. Ideas and action on both the individual and policy levels are essential, and they both recognize this. And yet each is pitted against the other, in a non-existent “feud.” Now pundits are treating Mayer’s decision about the remote-work policy at one struggling company as if it were an all-encompassing value judgment on flexibility policies.

Let’s not lose the forest for the trees. The discussions inspired by Slaughter, Sandberg, and Mayer are good news for those of us who care deeply about creating a more just society where men and women can participate in the spheres of work and home as they choose. As my 20-year study of Wharton students shows, and as others are finding as well, women are no longer alone in this fight, although it’s undeniable that they still bear the greatest burden. Men of the new generation have a different take on how work and life must cohere than do my grey-bearded peers. Young men do not merely accept that their spouses may work, they expect it. And they expect to have lives beyond work that include caring for their children and pursuing other passions. They want flexibility as much or more than women do. When asked to describe their dream jobs at the start of my class recently, one man said, “Stay-at-home Dad.”

And so we find Jeff Weiner, LinkedIn’s CEO, talking about the art of “conscious leadership” in his recent Wisdom 2.0 talk. This leader of one of our hottest companies is espousing the importance of taking the time to listen, ask questions, and coach rather than prescribe; of being mindful in order to make course corrections and experiment; of harmony among the spheres of life while eschewing the folly of balance; and of managing compassionately, not as a perk, but as a way of increasing economic opportunity and productivity. It’s increasingly OK for men to think like this and to talk like this.

As women (and some men) have worked for decades to help women enter and advance in the workforce, as women’s presence in the workforce has grown so that a new generation of children have been raised by working parents, and as the changing division of labor at home strains both men and women, we have entered a whole new world. The revolution is here.

But our policies have not kept pace with these changing realities. We must catch up to other developed nations. Though there’s been some movement since Jeff Greenhaus and I wrote Work and Family — Allies or Enemies? in 2000, we still need more flexible work arrangements, better-quality childcare, and, most importantly, leaders who recognize and respect the whole person. But what is heartening to me about this moment is how many have joined in the debate. And the conversation happening now will undoubtedly affect the choices that all of us — both men and women, at all levels of society — are making every day, by increasing the range of available possibilities for our companies, our families, our communities, and our selves.

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