The confident generation: Millennial women are changing what work looks like
By Laura Sessions Stepp,
Forget what you may think you know about our newest generation of working women. They are not the fretting, overstressed women we’ve been reading about for 20 or 30 years. They are as large or larger in number, better-educated, ambitious, optimistic and determined to enjoy a more well-rounded life than their mothers’ generations, according to polls from The Washington Post and Pew Research Center.
They have high expectations for the quality of their work, moderately high hopes for how much they’ll be paid, and feel confident they can blend work and life, regardless of whether they have children. This is particularly true for those who are college-educated and have grown up in middle- or upper-income families.
Katie Cristol, for example, a 27-year-old education consultant in Arlington, says, “I have yet to meet a woman my age who would say, ‘I’ll be perfectly content staying at home raising children.’ We are defined by what we do.”
She does much more in her life than work on education reform: She also takes classes in Latin dance fitness, yoga and resistance training, and enjoys time with her husband, Steve, and their Sheltie with the improbable name of Bear.
One reason she’s able to do all this is that, like an increasing number of millennial women, she works from home. Here in Washington, 9 percent do so full time, slightly more than the national average. These women can talk business in the car while driving to dinner with friends or taking their children to day care. They are changing what work looks like, supported by technology that enhances their abilities to multi-task and build, in a short time, professional and personal connections that last for years.
There are 60 million millennials in America age 21 to 34, born roughly between 1978 and 1991, according to census figures. Half are women.
In the Washington area, one out of every two of those women are employed full time — a higher ratio than the national average — and more than two out of three work either part time or full time. Of those with full-time jobs, 60 percent are college graduates, a considerably higher proportion than the national average. (Unless otherwise noted, statistics on millennial women in metro Washington were provided by Scarborough Research, jointly owned by Nielsen and Arbitron.)
These women appear to be buoyed by a stronger belief in their capabilities than many of their mothers enjoyed at their age. “Some people call it a sense of entitlement,” says Betsy Gressler, 50, who supervises a young staff for the Washington office of Blackbaud, an international software supplier for nonprofit organizations. “Sometimes there’s a layer of arrogance there, but mostly it’s a sense of confidence that I didn’t have.”
A recent hire is a good example. “Emily,” Gressler says, “knows she can do something even if she doesn’t know how at the moment.”
When many of us think of a workday, we envision backing our cars out of the garage between 6 and 9 a.m., reporting to work in an office building, greeting colleagues at nearby desks, gossiping at the water cooler and putting in a few hours at our computers before leaving at 5, the car radio tuned to the latest traffic report.
Computer technology has altered that daily scenario, giving workers flexibility their parents never had. This is particularly true for millennial women working full time in the Washington area, who are twice as likely to work in computer-related professions as those in the rest of the country.
Katie Cristol: Virtual worker
Katie Cristol sees her lawyer husband, Steve Giballa, off to work one fall morning, then sits at the kitchen table in her Arlington apartment in a T-shirt and blue jeans rolled up to mid-calf. Spreading cream cheese on a poppy seed bagel, she’s waiting for two back-to-back phone calls involving five colleagues, all of whom live in different states. Like Cristol, they work for Education First, a virtual consulting firm.
Bagel consumed, Cristol steps into an adjoining room that serves as both office and spare bedroom. She sits down at a computer monitor nestled in a black, floor-to-ceiling bookcase and prepares for the first call. She and a company principal will share documents on their screens as they discuss how school districts evaluate student performance. Bear curls up on the floor to her right.
Cristol grew up in Bethesda and says she was a “pro-life” conservative in middle school who wore argyle vests when other girls were wearing tube tops.
“Then 9/11 happened and catalyzed me,” she says. “I needed to know more about it.” She volunteered in the office of then-U.S. Rep. Connie Morella, a moderate Republican from Maryland, and became a voracious consumer of news. Over time, Cristol grew more liberal in her political views.
Five years ago, she graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in political and social thought. While at U-Va., she served as president of the University Democrats and, to the chagrin of her Republican father, Rick, organized Cavaliers for Kerry in support of John Kerry’s presidential race against George W. Bush. She also pierced her nose, prompting her father, in playful retribution, to put a Bush-Cheney bumper sticker on her car.
Cristol’s grandparents and parents placed a high value on hard work. Cristol’s maternal grandmother ran a delicatessen while supporting two children. Her father, president of a management firm, put himself through college. Her mother, Ronni, was a schoolteacher until she had children, and once Cristol, the younger of two, turned 13, Ronni returned to work as office manager for a children’s theater.
Cristol always knew that she would have not only a job but also a career. In high school, she told Ronni: “Mom, I love you, but I’ll never stay home.”
She laughs about that now that she is at home, working.
Cristol was attracted to Education First when she found out it seeks to help school districts graduate students who meet “common core standards” in English and math, a federal initiative adopted by 46 states so far. She liked that the standards, designed to make students “college- and career-ready,” aim to emphasize depth, not breadth, of knowledge. She started as an analyst and was recently promoted to consultant.
The company, which began six years ago in Seattle, includes 34 employees in 15 states and the District; about two-thirds are women. Founder Jennifer Vranek, 32 when she launched the company, says the decision to hire people no matter where they lived enabled her and her partners to attract the best. The employees are salaried, are expected to work 40 to 50 hours a week and keep online, daily time sheets. They manage their own schedules, recording them in an online calendar accessible to everyone in the company. They are guaranteed four weeks’ vacation and get comp days.
Like Marissa Mayer, president of Yahoo, Vranek realizes that employees will work hard if they can also be involved in the things in their private lives that are important to them.
The blurred lines between work and life characteristic of this generation can be difficult for their parents to understand and are not always clear to the young women and young men, either.
Virtual work in particular raises questions. If your days are as long or short as you want them to be, how do you know when you’re done with your job? How do you keep from watching TV or taking a nap?
“At first my mom found it hard to believe that I was working for a real organization,” Cristol says. “Mentally I don’t separate the two [life and work]. My job is my passion. I think of it when I get up in the morning and on the weekends.”
She guesses she spends 21 / 2 hours on the phone each working day and the rest of the time on e-mail, reading and writing reports. She says she puts in 45 hours a week, from 8:30 a.m. until 5:30 or 6 p.m., although the night before our talk, she worked until 10:30.
She eats dinner regularly with her husband but often is back on the computer at least for a little while after dinner. She travels about once a month to school districts.
To do what she does, she has to be a self-starter, well organized and responsible to a company whose employees she rarely sees. That wouldn’t be attractive for those of us whose enthusiasm is stoked by being around people at work: sharing ideas, getting direction, building alliances, telling jokes, consoling or being consoled, even complaining about the boss and the printer that’s on the fritz.
As one father of a millennial says: “They seem happy with a collegiality of one. Just thinking about working that way makes my stomach seize up.”
Of course, Cristol is with people most of her workday — on the computer or her smartphone. She may in fact connect with more people in one day than many of us do. But is that the same as face time?
One morning in September, colleague Phil Gonring calls Cristol to discuss an assignment. As they talk, Cristol scans a calendar on her computer screen that she shares with colleagues on another project. “I’m mindful I have a conference call at 11,” she tells Gonring, “and I know we talked about needing this by the end of today.”
As she waits for the conference call, Cristol notes that she is working on a separate assignment for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation “that could take all my time if I let it.”
“I’m a little overscheduled, but that’s okay. What’s exciting is states coming together. ... Even if it gets wonky, it matters. Kids in Arkansas should be held to the same standards as kids in Massachusetts. My job is my passion. Millennials want to be in a field where we feel passion.”
Her work and life are rarely in balance, she tells me one morning, if “balance” is defined as spending equal time on both in the same period. I suggest a substitute goal: “work-life effectiveness,” which the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation uses. Life is fluid. In some weeks, months or years, you may spend more time on your professional obligations; at other times, your personal life takes precedence. The question is whether over time you are accomplishing what you want and enjoying what you do. “Effectiveness” better describes what she and her colleagues aim for, she says.
Emily Goodstein: The warm workplace
Emily Goodstein, Betsy Gressler’s employee, is a 29-year-old “client success manager” for Blackbaud, named by Forbes magazine as one of the 100 best small companies in America in 2010.
One recent Monday afternoon, Goodstein took over a medium-size conference room at the sprawling Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center in Prince George’s County. Her job was to moderate a panel called “Out of the Box — Advocacy Superheroes,” in which nonprofitworkers discussed using software to attract and educate donors in tough economic times.
This was Goodstein’s first public appearance for Blackbaud. She was hard to miss in a bold, black dress with white polka dots, cinched with a bright red belt. As she encouraged panelists to talk about their online fundraising experiences, she doled out tips to the audience on making Web sites more donor-friendly. She had asked a friend to tweet updates about the panel and checked her smartphone frequently for tweets and hashtags during her panel and throughout the day.
A little over two years ago, Goodstein realized she was getting tired of working at a nonprofit women’s health organization where she had spent four years. As she puts it, “I had lost the Elvis.” She sought a professional coach to help her figure out what she wanted to do.
The coach suggested she spend a week searching newspapers, magazines and the Internet for her dream job. She came up with an eclectic mix: social manager for Blue Bunny ice cream? Not on the East Coast. Zappos, the shoe discounter? Based in Nevada. Too far and she’d spend her whole paycheck on boots, she joked.
A friend posted on Facebook a job opening at Convio, a computer software firm (purchased this year by Blackbaud). Goodstein was intrigued. She had graduated in sociology/human services from George Washington University in 2005 and had a soft spot for nonprofit organizations.
She also knew that work schedules tended to be more flexible at technology companies. That was important, because she enjoyed several side pursuits: commercial photography, the board of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, her personal blog and collaboration on a cookbook featuring recipes from Washington chefs, “Washington, DC Chef’s Table.”
When she researched Convio online, she discovered that it had a Washington office. She looked to see who her manager would be and discovered that Gressler was Facebook friends with people she knew. Bingo!
Goodstein brought creds not listed on her résumé. Technology was like a member of her family: Her father, Peter, was a systems engineer; her mother, Lois, a technical editor. Goodstein, fiercely independent from the time she was a young child, had insisted on getting AOL for her computer when she was in middle school.
Gressler had hundreds of job applications, some from people with PhDs, but Goodstein possessed several traits that appealed to her. Goodstein was smart and collaborative. She belonged to a generation whose interest and money nonprofit organizations were eager to capture. Most important for work with nonprofit groups, she was a person who cared deeply.
“I can teach systems and process, but I can’t train someone to care,” Gressler told me one morning at her office. “I wanted Emily even if she only stayed for a short time.”
The words “care” and “caring” pop up more frequently in business conversations these days, reflecting, perhaps, the growing number of female leaders such as Gressler and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer. “Motivation comes from working on things we care about,” Sandberg said in a speech to the Harvard Business School in May. “But it also comes from working with people we care about. ... If you want to win hearts and minds, you have to lead with your heart as well as your mind.”
Sandberg urged new graduates to think of the workplace as more jungle gym than ladder, to be prepared in their careers to “move sideways, move down, move on, move off.”
Some women in technology professions, only slightly older than millennials, appear to be doing that. Although their overall numbers are growing at a faster pace than in other occupations, mid-careerists’ interest in traditional career routes appears to be changing or declining slightly. According to a 2010 report by the National Center for Women & Information Technology, these women leave to start competing companies or to seek jobs in government or nonprofit groups.
It may not be pay that causes them to leave: According to the NCWIT study, women in science, engineering and technology professions experienced more pressure to put in “face time” and to be “available 24-7” than did women in other professions.
To keep her talented staff, Gressler does not make rigid time demands unless necessary. She doesn’t normally get upset when an employee comes in late or has to make a personal appointment.
She also knows that millennials value working on teams in a friendly environment. When she hired Goodstein for a particular team, she told members, “It’s your responsibility to see that Emily does not fail.”
One of the first things Goodstein told me was that the 15 people in her team — most of them ages 26 to 36 — take turns bringing fresh flowers into the office. Staff members also rotate responsibility for finding out where the neighborhood food trucks are parked in late morning. A nursing room was constructed to offer new mothers a private place to lie down on a specially designed bed, use a breast pump, and store their milk in the room’s refrigerator. The room, painted in pale colors and with a switch that dims overhead light, is so inviting that men sometimes sneak in to nap.
Gressler chose Goodstein’s clients suspecting that Goodstein would like some but not others. Gressler knew that Goodstein, like other millennials, has a clear sense of right and wrong and doesn’t back down from a position easily. Could Goodstein separate her political and personal beliefs from her role with particular clients? She has, Gressler says.
Gressler understands that she is sometimes seen by peers as coddling her young staff. When she was Goodstein’s age, she was a full-time computer programmer for the Ohio phone service provider Cincinnati Bell. At the end of a day, she gladly left coding and most colleagues behind.
Millennials do their best work in a more mobile environment, she says. They may make a couple of calls to clients before they arrive at the office. They may eat lunch while they’re talking to clients on their smartphones, or have drinks with buddies early in the evening, then return home to do more work. “Everyone has benchmarks they must meet,” she reminds her team.
She is proud of them. They work collaboratively and cohesively, she says. But there’s a downside to that cohesiveness: “When they start to go, they’ll all go. That’s the risk you take.”
Since Blackbaud purchased Convio, Goodstein’s job remains essentially the same: to represent the company to clients and clients to company. She speaks to each client on the phone for an hour at least once a month and e-mails or texts them regularly to give them data on how successful their fundraising is so far, or what meetings are coming up in which they might have an interest.
“She keeps pushing us, which I love,” says one of her clients, Pam Rutter, web manager of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan government watchdog organization. “I have two daughters, 22 and 17. They have to be more sophisticated; with technology, it’s a bigger world and closer to them. Emily and my daughters are more connected to the world than I was until I was 30.”
Both Goodstein and Cristol say they are satisfied with their levels of responsibility and wages. Goodstein negotiated her salary before joining Blackbaud; Cristol says Education First has an open, entrepreneurial attitude toward compensation and promotion “in part because of the women in leadership positions.”
One has to wonder — if the economy’s slow recovery stalls, jobs become scarcer or promotions less likely — will the confidence of millennial women diminish? As they take on more responsibilities, personal as well as professional, will their inner resources remain strong or will they flag?
To use an outdated but apt comparison, will they become Scarlett O’Haras, energetic and pragmatic women who push ahead, or will they take to their beds like Melanie Wilkes, weak and resigned to second-place status?
I’m betting on the Scarletts. Goodstein says there’s no way to predict. “The biggest thing I keep reminding myself is that right now I have a job I like and two big hobbies,” she says, “and I do all those things to the fullest.”
Laura Sessions Stepp, a former reporter for The Post, is author of two books about young people, both published by Riverhead Books, and is a senior media fellow at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Post senior research analyst David J. Barie contributed to this report. To comment on this story, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.