“What is wrong with Millennials?”

That question has been a too-familiar refrain in recent years, from commentators complaining about the “me generation,” or our work ethic, or our shifting habits around marriage or child bearing. But I’ve come to believe that Millennials (loosely defined as those born between the 1980’s and early 2000’s), are the first generation to be born into a world that is fundamentally rethinking which way is up, and which is down. Technological change, political upheaval, major cultural evolutions—particularly on gender issues—have all rapidly reshaped our world. Why do Millennials get blamed for the world we’ve inherited?

What Millennials Are Facing

Earlier generations of Americans (‘Greatest Generation,’ Baby Boomers, and Generation-X’ers) came of age during historical periods of great uncertainty (think the Great Depression, World War II, The Cold War). Their lives were structured around maintaining stability; a man or a woman was judged by his or her ability to maintain and keep a steady job, home and family. Stability was king because it was the rarest of commodities.

Millennials, on the other hand, have been raised by Gen-X and Boomer parents and thus have an understanding and appreciation for stability. But our historical context has been different. We have been born into an era in which the word “stability” has derived a negative connotation; stay too long at a job and you might be deemed not cutting-edge enough. Millennials not only live with change; they’ve come to expect it as surely as the next wave of technological innovation is unveiled. Meanwhile, our generation has also matured at a time when online manicured personas are more idealized than our non-virtual (real) person, leaving us to struggle with the question of “who am I?” in this morally ambiguous new world.

Remember too, Millennials are just entering their adult years. At 80 million strong, they now represent that largest U.S. generation. According to a report by Get Abstract, by 2020 they will outnumber all other people in the work force. 83% (and growing) of all new mothers are Millennial women.

The Current State for Mothers

Much of this social change has been shouldered by women, and in particular, by mothers.

The biggest impact of this change can be seen in a woman’s time: Over the course of the past century the amount of time mothers spend with their kids has directly increased as her level of education increases. But even as women make more time to spend time with their children, they aren’t “finding” more time. Put simply: [t]ime studies now show that mothers’ time with children has been climbing steeply, at the expense of sleep, personal care, and leisure...since 1985” (Overwhelmed, pg.180).

In instances in which mothers choose not to return to their careers after having kids, their schedules are no less-busy than those of working mothers. Carpools, after-school activities, running for PTA president, crafting the perfect birthday party and running the household have turned motherhood into a profession in itself.

The youngest generation of new moms is building portfolio careers: ones that are defined by the simultaneous pursuit of multiple interests, curiosities and identities. The modern mama is likely to be highly educated, considers her career a journey and is likely to be a co-breadwinner for her household.

A third of college educated women in the US will “opt-out” of their careers at some point to raise children, have children or take care of aging parents. This choice is one that an increasing number of Millennial mothers have made, for personal and economic reasons.

Scholars note that this decision, while deeply personal, will impact a woman’s potential life time earnings over her career. A 2005 Harvard Business Review article by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Lee found that at ages 25-29, women earn 87% of the male wage. By the time they reach 40-to-44 age group, women earn a mere 71% of the male wage. Hewlett and Lee point out that although the average amount of time women take from their careers is less than three years, the reduction in salary upon return can near 40%. And yet, many women choose to be at home with their children during those crucial early years. We must do more to help these women, too.

Organizations are slowly starting to pay attention to the difficulty women face upon attempting to re-enter the workforce but we are far from where we need to be. I’ve come to believe that the only way can make progress on this issue for Millennial families is for men and women to address this issue together, as partners in change.

What Millennial Men and Women Can Do Together

A recent NYT article by Claire Cain Miller looked at how workplace policies aimed at providing more flexibility for women have backfired in countries around the world. The major take-away? Family-friendly policies aren’t women’s issues or men’s issues; they’re human issues.

Work-life balance is not a ‘woman’s issue.’ Nor is Millennials’ growing desire for flexible work, or our need to professionally evolve with social and technological change.

As Millennial men and women consolidate into the workforce and become the newest cohort of parents (ushering in the new era of Generation Z) there are many opportunities for change that we must address together. They include:

  • Gender equality in society
  • Family-friendly policies
  • The growing role of technology in our lives
  • The role and definition of “work”
  • Re-defining the role (and cost) of higher education
  • Maturing perspectives on our relationships to the earth, and our role in it

Millennial men will have to help bring the gender revolution full circle. To be clear, that is not a euphemism to say that men will or should dictate conversations about gender equality. But if gender equality is what we are working towards, then men will have to do their part.

This means re-thinking what it means to be a significant other so that the expectations of child rearing and professional careerism are shared as desired by each couple, and not as dictated by gender scripts. This applies as much to mothers who desire to on-ramp back onto their careers, to fathers who choose to stay home with the children.

This will require a commitment not only from us as Millennials, but also from the organizations with which we work.

We already know that Millennials are innovative and willing to change with the time. Perhaps our opportunity lies in having the privilege of using our Millennial drive for purpose and meaning to help engage each other in a robust reexamination about what it means to be a father, mother, and human in the 21st century. I’m in.