Monday 19 February 2018

Why so many young women don't want to reach the top

Millennials know that women can't have it all, so lots of them have stopped trying. Gabrielle Monaghan spoke to three actively choosing a work-life balance over demanding roles

Next act: Tracey Quinn wrote a play for her Master’s in Drama and Performance Studies but sees her biggest adventure as raising the baby she is expecting at the end of May. Photo: Dave Meehan.
Next act: Tracey Quinn wrote a play for her Master’s in Drama and Performance Studies but sees her biggest adventure as raising the baby she is expecting at the end of May. Photo: Dave Meehan.
Content: Louise Murphy with James and their son Luke
Good life: Elizabeth MacDonnell sold two businesses to set up an alpaca farm and raise her own brood

Gabrielle Monaghan

People think you are selling yourself short, and are lazy and it's the easy thing

Tracey Quinn (24) has a slew of qualifications and accomplishments. She worked part-time in public relations at Dublin's Olympia Theatre to put herself through her degree in English and Philosophy, and wrote a play for her Master's in Drama and Performance studies.

But she has little interest in immediately pursuing a high-flying career. Instead her next venture will be raising the child she is expecting at the end of May and returning to work in an undemanding nine-to-five sales job.

For as long as Tracey can remember, she has valued motherhood more than a career. For her, the pressure on women to 'have it all', by combining a dazzling career with a busy household full of children, is overwhelming. So she's not going to try.

Tracey is not alone; women among the millennial generation, usually defined as those born after 1980, are increasingly deciding that reaching the top of their profession comes at too high a price, and that having a healthy work-life balance is infinitely preferable.

Tracey, who writes a lifestyle blog called Love Of Living and rents a "tiny house" in Dublin with her boyfriend Peter, says she never wanted "to be one of those people who are married to their job and thinking about work at the weekend".

"You see these women who seem to have it all – they have the money, have the kids, have the job – it's all so very Sex and the City," she says. "I don't want to put pressure on myself to have it all."

She is aware that drifting along in a job and aiming for happiness rather than the status of success is the new taboo for women her age.

"I have friends who wouldn't even consider having a child at my age, and some who say they are 100pc sure they are not having children at all," she says. "For them, it's all about having a career, money and travelling. Some say, 'anything a man can do, I can do better', and 'just because I can bear a child, doesn't mean I will'."

When she briefly considered being a stay-at-home mother, she felt "a huge sense of judgment" from some peers. "People think you are selling yourself short, you are lazy and that it's the easy thing to do. Yes, I have a Master's degree but I also have to be practical."

For all the female network-ing events and support groups and manifestos for women on taking charge of their careers, little thought is spared for young women content to just coast along and not feel obliged to compete for the corner office.

The millennials have heard their Generation X female bosses complain about dropping off their kids at the crèche at 8am before a 12-hour stint in the office and are adamant no amount of money will entice them to follow suit.

Louise Murphy (28), an assistant office manager in Cork city who returned to work in January on a four-day week, says her goals have changed since she gave birth to son Luke 10 months ago.

"Now it's about providing a stable home," she says. "Ideally, I'd stay at home for Luke's first couple of years, until he goes to school. But that's not financially possible. You almost feel you can't say to people that you'd like to be a stay-at-home mother. But when you say you are away from your child for 40 hours a week, you get unsolicited parenting advice." Louise was raised to have a "strong work ethic" and has had a job since she was 16.

She was always told she could "pursue anything I wanted", but has little appetite for climbing up the management ranks.

"The big dream for the future is to become self-employed and run my own company. I did a photography course while I was pregnant and set up my own projects. It would give me the flexibility that employers can't offer."

Elizabeth MacDonnell (38), an optometrist and a mother of four young children, can understand why women look at her generation and decide the balancing act isn't them.

"I can see why we might not be the best advocates of our lives, because we talk about being tired or life being difficult," she says. "When I look back to when I didn't have children, I don't know what I did with my time."

By the time Elizabeth had her first child, she lived in Tullamore and ran two optometry practices, in Portarlington and in Roscommon. As her family expanded, she sold the businesses and now works as a locum so she can spend more time with her children.

Indeed, she and her husband have carved out their own version of The Good Life. The couple bought land at the foothills of the Slieve Bloom mountains, near the Laois-Offaly border, and made it home to their large family and a herd of alpacas.

Elizabeth writes about her family on a blog called Life On Hushabye Farm, and believes millennial women are right to eschew the schedules of Generation X.

"There is this belief that you can have it all, but really you're just doing it all," she says. "If you put your mind to it, you can exist in the middle ground, where you have a bit of a career and a family too. That's where I am happiest.

"You don't have to be at the pinnacle of your profession. The world doesn't have to be made up of leaders – it would be a very sad workplace if everyone was a leader.

"I think that generation needs to hear more about how you can successfully and enjoyably juggle a career and a family. You don't have to leave your brain and your career aspirations in the maternity ward.

"There are those of us who have a career we love but it doesn't define us. We have a wonderful life that is entirely separate. It is definitely not the lesser option. For us, it is the better option."

The new ambition...

Despite coming of age in a brutal economy, the millennial generation receive a bad rap. Time Magazine's May 2013 issue dubbed those born in the 1980s and 1990s the "Me Me Me Generation", portraying them as too lazy to leave the parental home and too distracted by their iPhone screens to bother forging out a career by working their way up from low-paid jobs.

A growing number of studies point to the opposite, however; this misunderstood generation does harbour ambition. It's just that millennials' definition of success looks nothing like their parents'.

It's difficult to blame this generation for being disillusioned with the traditional model of work when the corporate world that used to reward 35 years of employee loyalty with a watch and a gold-plated pension no longer exists.

Instead of a job for life, many employers have little to offer bright young things other than temporary contracts and inflexible working hours, prospects that are rarely enticing to a generation that prizes control over their lives as much as a decent salary. And why put in the hours when your employer could relocate to China in the morning and notify you by text message?

For digital natives who cannot remember a time before the internet, this deskbound style of working is outmoded at best. Their measure of success is starting their own company, or having a portfolio career comprised of a variety of interesting jobs that they can pursue just as well from a trendy communal workspace or a beach hut in Mexico than an office block in Sandyford.

Irish Independent

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