Stewart Friedman, a Wharton Professor studied two generations of Wharton graduates, the Gen Xers in 1992 and the Millennials in 2012, and has come to a surprising discovery: the number of graduates planning on having children has dropped by almost half in the past 20 years.
In his new book Baby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family, Mr. Friedman provides us with considerable insight as to why men and women are increasingly choosing not to have children, what he calls The Baby Bust.
Why this change in attitude? Surely, they could manage both? According to Mr. Friedman, most business-school graduates of 2012 believe that they have no choice but to work in what he calls “extreme jobs,” where the amount of time dedicated to work has drastically increased in the past 20 years – he estimates an average of 14 more hours per week.
In 1992, a full-time employee worked on average 52 hours per week. In 2012, they expect to be working up to 72 hours per week, leaving little time for little ones. This may seem foolish, but does have a logic to it.
Seeing a hyper competitive job market, graduates are focusing on building their careers considerably earlier today than they did 20 years ago. The number of grads who completed an internship in 2012 is more than double what it was in 1992. They place a greater importance of getting their foot in the door, in the hopes of working their way up to the job they actually want, knowing climbing the ladder in today’s world is no easy feat. So, with such demanding working lives, where there’s more work and less reward, business grads foresee the inescapable reality of them having less time at home with the kids.
Why men are opting out
Mr. Friedman’s study found that most male graduates of 1992 believed they could have a family while succeeding in a demanding career. Today’s men are more apt to doubt this, anticipating the demand for more time at work and less time at home. The morphing of gender-role stereotypes is also leading some women to no longer remain at home and work just as much as men.
But, at the same time, men are expecting to play more active roles in the home. Now it’s not only dad who’s tired after a 72-hour work week, mum is too. With such demanding careers being pursued – by both them and their wives – having to be an involved family men while maintaining a career seems almost impossible, so Millennial men are increasingly opting out of parenthood.
To add to the burden, children are expensive, at least for this part of society. Being a student is also expensive, resulting in huge student debts in the United States.
Why women are opting out
Unlike most Millennial men, who associate having a positive impact on society with being a father, many Millennial women have decoupled the desire to have a positive social impact from the desire for motherhood. In 1999, Mr. Friedman’s research showed that 90 per cent of women said they would like to have kids. In 2012, that number dropped to 41 per cent.
To many business-minded women today, helping others means having a positive social impact through their career. They see the importance of social involvement and success not necessarily through having children, but through the achievement of their career goals. They believe that children need to be spending time with their parents, but worry that this would limit their ability to create greater societal change through their work.
All this being said, the idea of being a parent is still highly valued by Millennials: it is simply their plans to do so that have drastically diminished in comparison to Gen Xers. Their mindset is more about building the career first and having the family later. In 1992, grads had the optimistic view that they could “have it all” – the career, the spouse, the kids. Grads in 2012 are not so optimistic, figuring there is a choice that needs to be made.
It’s hard to argue with their conclusions, yet I was saddened as I read the book. For too many of this generation, it means they are trading what is, for many of us, among life’s greatest pleasures and achievements for something which is simply a lesser thing. I believe that many can achieve career success and be excellent parents.
I hope and believe they will grow out of it. One CEO told my MBA class how he and his wife agreed when they married in the late 1970s never to have children. It was the thing to do in the day, but after attending a few of her business school reunions and seeing girlfriends with children, she changed her mind. Today they are thrilled to have two grown children.
I also hope our business culture grows up a bit, too. When many of our top achieving youth sacrifice family on the altar of career we are doing something wrong. A friend of mine, it appears, is dying, but during this time he is surrounded by his wife, three children and grandchildren. They comprise his fondest memories, far surpassing his many years as a successful manager at Standard Life. Who ever thought on their death bed, “I wish I had spent more time in the office?”
Karl Moore is an associate professor at the Destautels Faculty of Management at McGill University. Sienna Zampino is a research assistant of Prof. Moore.
This column is part of Globe Careers' new Leadership Lab series, where executives and leadership experts share their views and advice about the leadership and management issues of today. There will be a new column every weekday. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab