The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bye bye, baby

Placeholder while article actions load

What a difference 20 years can make.

Two decades ago, Stewart Friedman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton business school, surveyed nearly 500 members of the school's undergraduate class about their careers, family, ambitions and the challenge of balancing it all. Then he did it all over again in 2012, giving that year's undergrad class the same survey, as well as following up with many members of the 1992 group. The longitudinal study, which compares two generations at the same age, is the basis for his new book, "Baby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family."

The title hints, not so subtly, at the study's most striking finding: While 78 percent of the students said in 1992 that they expected to have or adopt children, only 42 percent said they wanted to in 2012. The percentages were nearly the same for both men and women. When the findings came in, says Friedman, who directs the school's Work/Life Integration Project and has studied leadership development and work-life balance issues for 30 years, "I thought that can’t be right. But it is right."

Friedman spoke with The Washington Post about this surprising number, how men's and women's attitudes toward work and family have changed over the past two decades, and what it's like being a man studying an issue that for so long has been labeled a women's issue. An edited excerpt of the conversation follows:

These were all undergrads. How do they really know what they want in terms of families, and what did you find when you went back and checked on what happened with the 1992 students?

A number of people asked me, "What can you possibly know at age 22 about what you want to do with your life?" That's a very fair and valid point. But the power of this design is that we're comparing two generations of people at the same point in their lives, so why would we see this drop in their intentions? To answer your question about whether they were accurate predictors [of whether the 1992 group would have kids], the answer is yes. There wasn't 100 percent correlation, but it was strongly positive.

What's interesting is the importance of being a parent and the importance of being in a long-term relationship still matter a lot to most people. What’s different is their intention--their plans to have children. A lot of people out there would like to be parents but their ambition for having children is thwarted by a number of factors.

The most striking observation about the decline in intentions to have children is that women are choosing not to have children as a conscious and deliberate free choice, without the same kind of guilt that previous generations had, or without the same expectations externally imposed by family and society that previous generations of women have felt. Many women in our study, and since then in tons of focus groups, have talked to me and said, "I’m pursuing my career, and I'm not going to stop that. That's what I really want for my life."

You asked each cohort how many hours per week they expected to work after graduation, and the difference between the two generations was stark. What accounts for that?

The number of hours the participants expected to work went from 58 hours a week in 1992 to 72 in 2012. That's 14 hours more a week on average. That’s a huge number, and it speaks to the culture of overwork that’s now ubiquitous among people in this sector of the business world. They’re starting internships earlier. They're much more savvy about the importance of building networks. They’re more absorbed in their careers earlier, in part because of the pressures and financial insecurity that many of this group have experienced. Remember, this group started college at the beginning of the Great Recession--they were in school from 2008 to 2012.

You saw a big shift in how men's views have evolved over the last 20 years. What surprised you the most?

The most striking aspect of that set of observations is that men anticipate greater conflict between work and family life. They expect their spouses to be employed and fully engaged in their career. Men want to be fathers and want to be more involved as fathers. But when you put those two together, and add their anxieties and the amount of time they expected to be working, there were more who were less likely planning to have kids. They no longer identify as sole breadwinner. As a result, they are now more egalitarian in their views about what makes a dual career work.

What about the shift for women?

I heard many stories of young women who have observed senior women in their internships--or their mothers--and seen how difficult it has been for them to have the kinds of family lives they want to have. Most of the examples I heard are negative. They dissuade young women from thinking they can have a family life and a rich career, which is why women today--millennials compared to Gen Xers--are actually less egalitarian in terms of how they see what makes for a successful dual-career relationship. They are more likely to yield to the notion that somebody’s got to be home with the kids and it's probably going to be me.

On the one hand, what we’re seeing is women choosing not to have children as an acceptable legitimate option. I daresay it's the first time in society where women are able to make that choice freely. That's really important. On the other hand, they are feeling a kind of choice. They're more aware. They’re more realistic, I would say, about the choices that confront them.

What’s happened in the past 20 years is that men's and women's views have converged. Men are more egalitarian, but women are less so, so that now their views are practically identical. That's another cause for hope: Women and men are more likely to collaborate and discover new models for how to make family work.

What do you make of the debate that’s come up over "Lean In," and the criticism--warranted or not--that Sandberg is placing the responsibility on women rather than on organizations or policymakers?

I think the debate is silly. What’s clearly needed is innovation on all sides. It's super helpful to have models for how to have an impact as a woman in the working world, and I also strongly believe we need to have changes in social and educational policy. The debate is a false one.

What can managers do on a day-to-day basis to help young employees feel less constrained by those choices that so many believe they'll have to make?

Many companies are experimenting with focusing more on results, and less on the means of how to produce them. They're giving people freedom, and a really clear focus on the results that matter. They're declaring that this is not a women’s issue and using examples of how both men and women are successful with new ways of getting things done.

I'm curious: How did you first get interested in studying work-life balance, and what kind of response did you get to it as a man in a top-tier business school more than 20 years ago?

I started my career as a scholar studying leadership development. A number of people were saying "Stew, why are you doing this? Why are you focusing on a women’s issue when you've got a promising career in another area?" Eventually I merged the two. Indeed, I was often the only guy in the room at conferences and meetings and trade groups focusing on work-life issues. But because I was a man addressing family and kids at the Wharton school, I became an object of curiosity and got a lot of attention that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. It was weird.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

Single, childless and want work life balance? How taboo.

Why pay equity and work-life balance aren't just women's issues

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.