Climbing the Lattice to Success
March 30, 2009
The fifth in a series of work-life balance stories brings us to Los Angeles and New York where Yelizavetta Kofman and Astri von Arbin Ahlander, respectively, offered their astounding insights into Generation Y’s views on work, life ,and parenting. As co-founders of The Lattice Group that specializes in Gen Y workplace issues, this dynamic duo provided an astounding breadth of knowledge in all areas of life.
They view balance as an impossible notion and equate the attempt with trying to win the war on drugs. What they do believe, however, is the ebb and flow of life. Sometimes they see themselves as working more or working less, depending on their life situations. Embracing entrepreneurialism is the underlying factor in providing the most flexibility and for striking an equilibrium in our lives.
What I found most empowering about their message is we can climb the lattice to success, making lateral moves as equally justifiable as straight shots to the top. Facetime is put into question as Gen:Yers tend to embrace a more mobile work style.
Below you will find the entire interview. So grab a cup of your favorite hot beverage and enjoy the read!
CLH: Which workplace issues are most pressing for Gen Y today?
Liz: This is a difficult question because Gen Yers are so young: they don’t have kids or families yet and most, at least in the United States, aren’t thinking too far ahead. A recent survey of graduating college seniors by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reported that out of fifteen possible job attributes, the top three chosen by American students were: opportunity for advancement, job security, and a good insurance package. So Gen Yers, understandably, are concerned mainly about health insurance and security. In European countries, Gen Yers don’t have these workplace concerns because they are provided universally by the government. They are more likely to answer that they are concerned with issues of flexibility (the ability to work from anywhere and to have flexible hours). I would say that flexibility is definitely a main concern for American Gen Yers, too. Gen Yers grew up with the internet. They don’t understand why “facetime” at an office is so sacrosanct when they know they can do the same work from somewhere else. I would say many Gen Yers are looking for a workplace that is more than just a paycheck.
They want to feel useful and connected to an organization, which is why strict hierarchies are a turn-off. So I would say the availability of certain benefits like health insurance, flexibility, and “buy-in” are the most pressing workplace issues for Gen Y. That, and finding a job in this economy!
Astri: I agree with Liz, but would like to underscore the Gen Y resistance to facetime. Nearly all of the Gen Y:ers we spoke to expressed frustration with long work hours and what they perceived as time ill spent because of the value superiors put on facetime. As one young engineer commented, many of his peers would take more time to do their tasks than they needed in order to drag their work out over more hours- putting in a lot of late hours was considered a measure of diligence and commitment, no matter how those hours were spent. As Liz commented, Gen Y:ers are of a high-tech generation that know they can work in many places other than in an office and a lot of them expressed a desire to be more flexible in when and where they work.
This will only become more important when they have more complex family concerns.
CLH: How do Gen:Yers view work-life balance?
Liz: Again, this is different whether we’re talking about Americans or Europeans. American Gen Yers largely view work-life balance as a personal responsibility. You either figure out how to balance your work with the rest of your life, or you don’t. Sure, it would be nice if employers provided an environment conducive to work-life balance–and it may go a long way toward reqruiting and retaining Gen Yers–but, mostely, it’s seen as a personal responsibility issue. This is not the case in Europe, where Gen Yers demand a lot more help from their government and employers.
What work-life balance means, exactly, is very different depending on the individual. For some, it means being able to balance having kids and a career in the future. For others, it means the ability to sustain interests and relationships outside of work.
Astri: The difference in views of work-life balance between American and European Gen Y:ers was striking. While American Gen Y:ers largely considered it a personal problem for which they had to engineer their own personal solutions, European Gen Y:ers expected a lot of help from companies and from society as a whole. Europeans thought that work-life balance was a right that they should be assisted in getting while American Gen Y:ers viewed it as a highly desirable goal which they generally had vague notions about how to achieve. The result is that Europeans are likely to make more demands than their American counterparts. The danger with treating work-life balance as an individual’s problem and not society’s is that people risk feeling alienated in their struggle to “figure it out,” and thus don’t start making the kinds of demands that eventually lead to systemic change.
CLH: Most Gen Y are still ‘kids’ themselves. How do you think Gen Y will handle raising kids differently than, say, Gen X?
Liz: Frankly, this is a big mystery. Gen Xers pretty much invented the phenomena of “intensive parenting” — think yoga for infants, countless sports practices and music lessons, and greater competition for college admissions. I really don’t know if intensive parenting will wane with Gen Y. Competition for college admissions will probably only get more cut-throat. On the other hand, the current economic crisis and “thrift chic” mentality may drive some Gen Yers to reject this kind of child-rearing. Driving a Hummer full of toddlers to soccer practices everyday isn’t exactly good for the environment, either, and Gen Y is more concerned with sustainability than previous generations. I believe “shared parenting” (a la Lisa Belkin’s New York Times Magazine article) will become more prevalent, but probably not the norm. Unless the government and employers step-up and provide paid parental leave to both men and women, women will likely remain the primary caregivers.
Astri: The Gen Y:ers we talked to, both men and women, emphasized the important of having time for children, of being there with them. Male Gen Y:ers didn’t want to be distant fathers (as many of their own fathers had been) and female Gen Y:ers didn’t want to be the sole caretakers (as many of their mothers had been). And so, there is some hope that Gen Y will actually “parent” rather than “mother.” But, as Liz said, before American policies become more family friendly and gender neutral (such as paid parental leave for fathers as well as mothers, the de-stigmatization of flex policies as “female” and a denoting less career ambition etc), it is a mystery how Gen Y parents will realize the goal of equal parenting.
CLH: How do you define ‘balance’?
Liz: Personally, I don’t think you can ever achieve “work-life balance.” That would be like winning the “war on drugs”– impossible. The Spanish refer to this idea as “work-life reconciliation” and I think that’s more attainable. Or work-life effectiveness. In my own life, I know there will be times when I put my work ahead of my family (they’ll get over it). Other times, family will definitely come first. I think the first step is trying to figure out what you want in life. I want to have a job that I love and be very, very good at it. But, at the end of the day, I know my relationships with family and friends will be more important to me, so I am prepared to make some sacrifices in terms of pay and prestige. Eventually, I want to have a job that allows me a lot of flexibility in terms of my day-to-day hour, I want long vacations (I’m talking like 4 weeks in a row), and I may want to be able to have reduced work hours when my children are very young.
Will I be able to achieve all this? Certainly not in the very near future, but I do think it’s possible. I think the key to achieving “work-life balance” is finding a partner who shares your goals, or at least is willing to help you achieve your goals.
Astri: Liz hit the nail on the head: achieving work-life balance has a lot to do with who you choose to build the “life” part with. We heard this over and over again in the interviews that we conducted with seasoned professionals. The ones who truly “made it” always cited the importance of an understanding spouse so that the work-life equation was never theirs alone to bear. My tip is to make sure you know what your partner is expecting right off that bat (those conversations might seem awkward, but they can really be enormously instructive).
For me, career is incredibly important and so finding a partner who respects that is key. But saying career is important doesn’t mean that family isn’t. I am fundamentally opposed to the status quo of what we call the “ladder society,” where a successful career hinges on a consistent, linear upward-bound trajectory. My idea of balance is linked more to a “lattice career,” meaning a more sequential development where both men and women can make lateral moves as well as slow down for a while without losing all of their momentum. I hope to work all of my life, but I expect to work differently in different phases of my life. Balance for me is making that kind of a lattice lifestyle possible. How to do that? As many of our Gen Y interviewees on both sides of the Atlantic recommended: by being entrepreneurial and having as much flexibility as possible.
CLH: Thanks so much for your valuable insights!
Liz & Astri: Thank you!