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Selena Rezvani is author of the new book PUSHBACK: How Smart Women Ask—And Stand Up—For What They Want and co-president of Women’s Roadmap. Follow her on Twitter at @SelenaRezvani.
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Not your mother’s ambition

The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree. At least that’s what we thought when the daughters of working baby boomers flooded the job market. Gen Y women, boomers’ youngest working offspring, were expected to plunder the work world with unprecedented “uberdrive.”  After all, they’ve seen their working moms make a living and raise a family; surely they’d take that formula and refine it, fueling it with even more wide-eyed drive. Gen Y women also present the most educated cohort of any before them, the least likely to see gender inequity as a problem at work, and report a voracious hunger for challenge on the job.

Be this as it may (and a point I’ve written about before), young women don’t plan to take the same well worn path as their moms and then tweak it. Millennial women, it turns out, want something entirely different.  

The Washington, DC-based Business and Professional Women’s (BPW) Foundation recently released Gen Y Women in the Workplace , a study that examines what motivates the youngest segment of female workers. The study shows that Gen Y women expect their work to be satisfying in at least two ways: They anticipate enjoying their work--rather than surviving through the day­­­--and count on contributing to something bigger than themselves. Study participants also share their objections with work/life programs that cater only to family needs, diminishing any other valid reasons for work/life integration. Said one participant, "We've been welcomed into the workplace, but the structure hasn't changed. The rules haven't changed."  Respondents cite their desire for autonomy and control over their work, a factor which leads them to loathe arbitrary timetables and rules. Put another way, and as I overheard a millennial woman recently vent, “Why do they care if I’m four minutes late to work if I’m the top performer in my department?” 

The impression working boomer moms have left on their young daughters is significant. Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett and her team conducted research examining that intersection in Bookend Generations: Leveraging Talent and Finding Common Ground . Sixty-two percent of Gen Y women surveyed by Hewlett confirmed that they don’t want to emulate their mothers’ “extreme” careers that involved long hours. If family is going to be a priority, it’s felt, the costs of extreme work are simply too great.  A vivid case in point: When a younger friend in college commented that both of her parents were big-ticket psychiatrists, I remember commenting “that must’ve made for some interesting dinner conversation.” She looked awkward and crestfallen.  “My parents weren’t around…I had dinner every night with our housekeeper. I won’t do that, though.” 

Young women have a clear discomfort mimicking their workaholic boomer moms, but those that had stay-at-home mothers don’t necessarily want that path either.  Hewlett found that boomers’ black-or-white vision of work—opt in and go full throttle or opt out and never have a career—is too constricting a philosophy for Gen Y women.  Instead, the youngest female workers tend to give equal emphasis to family and career.

While these young women are poised to demand upgrades to the modern workplace, as Sylvia Ann Hewlett notes, reality does bite. Gen Yers will be welcomed by workplaces that are more demanding—not less so—in terms of hours and performance. What’s more, Americans today are working more hours per week than in previous years, upping their face time in a culture of “do more with less.”  While Gen Y’s vision may be a needed one, the realism and timing of their goals cast doubts. 

Younger generations may always look to older counterparts and see difference, but it doesn’t mean they don’t see value.  Leapfrogging Gen X altogether, Hewlett found that 53 percent of female Gen Y professionals look to boomers for professional advice more than any other generation.  As well, nearly 60 percent of boomers report that they enjoy helping this younger generation navigate the workplace.

Many have held out hope that while it couldn’t happen for their own generation, Gen Y women will be the answer to better gender balance in executive-level positions. But with searing independence and determination to do it their way, entrepreneurship looks more likely than the corporate ladder for Y females.  Do young women today have unprecedented drive?  It appears they do, but they’re driving for change. 

More from On Leadership:

Engineering gender parity

10 body language traps for women

The daughter effect on male CEOs

Selena Rezvani  | May 13, 2011 11:45 AM

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