Being married to the job, why people are opting-out, and the odd consequences of that

Joan Williams recently wrote an important piece in HBR about the fact that men, and particularly younger men, are increasingly rejecting career paths that require an overcommitment of time to work. Faced with the option of "up or out", men are choosing "out":

Younger men increasingly want schedules that work around family needs — just as women have been demanding for years ...

This creates a big gap between older men and their protégés ... ["Iron Men surgeons" bragged] that a surgical residency program [had] a 110 percent divorce rate (“Guys would come in married, get divorced, get remarried, and get divorced again”) ... What’s intriguing is that many younger men won’t play the game ... Kellogg found three main groups of such men:

'One group ... wanted to spend more time listening to [clients] ... Another group rejected Iron Men’s work-all-the-time ideals. “You want to get home to see your kids. You want to see your kids grow up,” said one. For a third group, the issue was not work-family balance but manliness itself. They found the Iron Men’s macho displays off-putting and inconsistent with their image of what it took to be an egalitarian man, a self-image that was important to them.'

However, there is no question that at least superficially, an employee who is available to work all the time for a company appears more valuable. And as more employees opt out of being "married to the job", the financial premium that some companies are prepared to pay is rising. Again from Williams:

... men are paid handsomely for putting in such hours. An important new study by Youngjoo Cha and Kim A. Weeden reports that the wage premium for “overwork”—working more than 50 hours a week—has risen sharply. In 1979, there was actually a wage penalty for overwork; but this turned into a wage premium after the mid-1990s. Because men tend to overwork more than women, the rising overwork premium raised men’s wages more than women’s, and has effectively erased the advantage women gained by increasing their higher education levels.

All this helps explain why, according to one survey, 75 percent of male executives are married to homemakers. It’s simply not possible to work 90 hours a week and see to your own basic needs – much less support someone else’s career ... But there’s an impact of these kinds of arrangements – he works all of the time, she does all the housework – on organizations. A recent study reported that male managers in such marriages found organizations with egalitarian gender attitudes less appealing and were more likely to give women low job evaluations.

This mindset, created by the peculiar demography of upper-level management, is increasingly out of sync with most of the workforce.

While it's not explicitly covered in the study, I wouldn't mind laying a bet that of the women executive managers who have similarly sacrificed their home life for work are similarly biased against people who want work-life balance. Their focus on increased financial reward for hard work just doesn't gel with those people who would value flexibility far more than an incremental financial reward.

But what we're seeing is not just a simple case of employee grumbling. People with specialist or in-demand skills are actually looking at the market, deciding that there are sufficient opportunities to go it alone, and quitting. From Williams again:

[Men] are beginning to do what women have done for decades: to work as consultants or start their own businesses that give them the flexibility for better work-family balance ... a former in-house lawyer [said], “I had a two-year old and a baby and I definitely wanted to be at home and spend time with my kids and my wife and I saw there was an opportunity.” Being able to work at home, for him, was “a big benefit.” ... Like blue-collar guys, these younger professional men have different understandings of ambition and different ideals of fatherhood. If they’re unable to change their organizations to allow time for family life, like the young surgeons were, they will leave.

This is more than just a story to me. It almost exactly describes my reasoning to leave the public service and set up my own consulting firm early in 2013.

It's an odd dichotomy: In today's workforce, executive managers are much more likely to disapprove of employees who want a work/life balance. And people are increasingly likely to decide that they would rather walk from a job than to put up with that.

So these gung-ho managers, who think all employees should just work harder, will drive away everyone who has the talent to work somewhere better. This only leaves them with inexperienced or less talented people who are scared of financial instability or of not being able to find a new role. These people will presumably still resent being treated like slaves and will find other ways to act out such as increased absenteeism, corporate vandalism, and the like. It's certainly not a promising recipe for improved productivity at these organisations!

I think that it's interesting that multinationals tend to have some of the most progressive attitudes to work-life balance. My suspicion is that this is because when high staff turnover produces such a consistently large impact on the bottom line, you become more serious about reducing it.

And the evidence is pretty clear: If you want people to hang around, you've got to treat them as people, along with all of their untidy mix of personal circumstances, needs, and ambitions. More than anything else, I feel that people want their work to be a place that can be negotiated to mutual benefit, and not just a series of unreasonable demands.

The days of the "Iron Man" are coming to a close. I'm confident that this will all sort itself out in 20 years or so, as the current crop of managers retires along with their attitudes. But in the meantime, it could get pretty messy...

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