Young women in their teens and early twenties are shunning the career paths which spurred on their professional mothers’ success, writes Eliza Filby
Teenage rebellion has always manifested itself in different ways; from punks and goths to drink and drugs, the young have always found ways to express defiance. But 20 years into the 21st century this rite of passage is taking on a new form and, as in so many areas, Gen Z are shaking things up. The biggest rebellion of all these-days is telling your parents that you don’t want to work as hard as them.
In my focus group discussions with Gen Z women in their teens and twenties, a prevalent theme is emerging. These young women, like many of their peers, want greater work-life balance. But they don’t just want it when they’re young. They plan to prioritise autonomy and flexibility throughout their career. Why? Because they’ve looked at the way their mothers have dedicated themselves to their careers, and their response is a resounding: “count me out.”
I also spend a lot of time talking to these mothers, in their forties and fifties, most of whom are in professional careers and have spent decades achieving seniority, and I sense genuine disappointment that so many of their daughters are rejecting the feminist example that they’ve worked so hard to set. Women brought up on the idea that they could have it all if they’re prepared to fight for it are failing to recruit the next generation.
Like so much in the field of generational analysis, we can’t paint in broad strokes. My observations here are specific to the kind of middle class household where children grew up watching both parents work hard to progress in a professional career. They’ve seen their parents commit to the “always on” mindset of digital connectivity, and they’ve very often seen their mums run twice as fast just to keep up with the men.
As one young woman and PR account manager put it: “My mum was a lawyer; she worked so hard but we never saw her. When we were on holiday, she was so exhausted that she just wasn’t much fun”. She is determined to have a much longer career break than her mother did when she had children.
It’s not that Gen Z lacks ambition, far from it, they just believe that they can achieve success on their own terms.
While Baby Boomer women often found themselves the only woman in the room at work – let alone the boardroom – Gen X were the pioneering feminist generation, where an increasing number of female graduates entered the male dominated professions, collectively smashing the glass ceiling while being determined to raise up women around them. They broke down boundaries, but they often had to do it by contorting themselves, their fertility and their family obligations to fit in a rigid male breadwinner work-model.
That so many Gen Z women want to envisage another way is unnerving for women in their forties and fifties now, who, unlike their mothers, felt they were setting a clear feminist example for their daughters. One woman confided to me “Not only does my daughter not want to follow in my footsteps, she doesn’t even respect the example I’ve set and to be honest, I find that difficult to swallow but I also know she’s got a point.” Generational influence on work is flowing upwards.
What is going on here? Is it that this next generation are naive? Or maybe over-parented, more individualistic and therefore unwilling to fit into a rigid career structure? They want fluid careers, perhaps multiple careers, and are not wedded to a ladder in the same conformist way their mothers had to be. But they are also aware that life is long and agility will be key in the age of Gen A.I. I spoke to one 21-year-old girl who listed five different careers that she wanted throughout her working life, and precisely when she would have them.
This does feel like a particular moment. The pandemic triggered a new era of worker autonomy and all the signs are that the next generation of professional millennial parents are thinking very differently, not least because they do not have the same rewards or sense stability that their parents enjoyed, and they know they will be working for longer.
Every generation attempts to rewrite the rules, and if Gen Z women do manage to craft a better, more flexible, career strategy they will, no doubt, be building on (rather than rejecting) the foundations laid by their working mothers.