Yale Survey–The Next Generation Will Transform the Work+Life Debate (So, Why Aren’t We Hearing More About It?)

A seismic shift in our collective work+life sensibility is underway. Last week, I cited the 2006 Universum MBA study in which, for the first time, both male and female MBAs ranked “work-life balance” as their top career goal.

The Yale Undergraduate Work-Life Balance Survey is further proof of this trend, but this time we’re talking about undergraduates. What’s really interesting is that the student newspaper reported the survey findings as “unsurprising.” They are, in fact, very surprising. They directly contradict the “mothers-only” and “opting out” messages we hear in the media and from inside Corporate America. Here is how the Yale Daily News put it:

“Unsurprisingly…among Yale women who plan to have children, nearly three out of four plan to take less than a year off work, and only 4 percent plan to stop working entirely after becoming mothers.”

“ It is also probably not shocking that as personal and professional balance becomes a bigger priority among young people, no difference was found in the degree to which male versus female undergraduates value both family and career. One might ask why this survey was even necessary.”

“One might ask why this survey is even necessary.” I love this! These students assume that a majority of women plan to work after having children. And they assume there is no difference between the work+life goals of men and women. It’s such a non-story, they wonder why we even bother to discuss it. This makes me very hopeful that someday these beliefs will be the conventional wisdom.

Unfortunately, right now they aren’t, and the student reporters ultimately do acknowledge this. They accurately describe the damage done to the real debate when the issue is inaccurately presented. They cited the uproar created last year by another, somewhat dubious, survey of Yale undergraduate women which found that “many women at elite colleges planned to set aside career plans in favor of full-time child-rearing.” This year’s Work-Life Balance Survey (“the most rigorous study to date of career and family expectations among Yale undergraduates of both genders”) found just the opposite:

“The persistent, groundless presumption of a stay-at-home motherhood resurgence among graduates of elite academic institutions is burying essential parts of the work-life balance discussion, to the detriment of all who will someday confront these issues: in other words, us…” This false trend:

1. “Stymies the impetus for the equal treatment of women who want full-time careers, “ (Yes, they are correct. This well-intentioned focus on the work+life challenges of mothers to the exclusion of everyone else’s very real collective work+life issues is actually hurting women more than it helps them.)

2. “[Stymies] the development of workable systems for women and men who seek more flexible options.” (Again, they’re correct. As long as flexibility is viewed as a policy for mothers, it won’t succeed. It needs to become part of how we all manage our careers and businesses everyday.)

3. “Makes it more difficult to articulate that, as women become equally as interested as men in professional accomplishment, men are becoming equally as interested as women in being a presence in their children’s lives. Indeed, Yale men felt more strongly than Yale women that they would be looked down upon for choosing a non-traditional role.” (We continue to analyze work+life through the traditional “all or nothing” gender stereotypes of the previous generation. But the truth is that they don’t apply, and, therefore, will not lead to workable solutions.)

Bottom line:

In closing, I must ask why these findings were only covered in the Yale student newspaper. I may have missed it, but I didn’t see the same level of coverage given to these findings as was given to last year’s survey that found “Ivy League women want to be stay-at-home mothers.” Again, what does this say about the accuracy of the information we use to collectively analyze work+life issues personally, organizationally, and culturally?

But on a more optimistic note, let’s take a minute to imagine what the world will be like when these young people bring their “it’s an everyone issue” sensibility to the work+life dialogue. Finally there will be a day when we can ask, “Are work-life balance surveys really necessary anymore?” And the answer will honestly be, “No.”