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Millennials plan to trade kids for careers — but it doesn't have to be that way

A growing number of Millennials are planning to pass up parenthood because of the major stresses they see facing parents who are trying to juggle career demands with being devoted parents.
A growing number of Millennials are planning to pass up parenthood because of the major stresses they see facing parents who are trying to juggle career demands with being devoted parents.

Erin Wehmann, 28, can tell when she and her husband have been at work too long. They'll come home to find Jake and Macey, their 7-year-old lab mixes, moping around the house.

While she doesn't like leaving them for long stretches, she knows that during those occasional 10- to 12-hour work days, her dogs have plenty of food and water and access to the doggy door.

"But that's not like a kid," she said. "You can't just leave them in your backyard."

Wehmann and her 30-year-old husband, Ben, who until recently was traveling three weeks out of the month for work, used to talk about having children, but now she has second thoughts.

"I have been concerned...that I wouldn't be able to find a balance with adding kids to the mix," said Wehmann, who lives in Madison, Wisc., and works for a software company. "It's a struggle now to find a good balance between non-work obligations, being able to have hobbies and spending time with my husband. To think of adding a child to that is definitely something that I can't imagine being able to juggle."

According to data from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, many of Wehmann's peers feel the same way.

While a recent Pew Research Center survey found that 69 percent of unmarried Millennials want to get married, the Wharton survey found that only 42 percent of 2012 graduates planned to have or adopt children, compared with 78 percent of 1992 graduates, thanks to the intense conflict grads see between work and family life.

"The baby bust ... is not about young people forming smaller nuclear families, that is, with fewer children," writes Wharton professor Stewart Friedman in his new book, "Baby Bust." "It is about the many who say they are simply opting out of parenthood altogether. Being a parent is still very important for most young people, but many just don’t see how they can manage it, so they are planning lives without children."

While Wharton grads are a distinct population, and whether or not they actually remain childless 10 to 15 years down the road is unknown, the mere fact that they're considering opting out of parenthood highlights some valid concerns about the state of the American workplace, says Sarah Jane Glynn, associate director of women's economic policy at the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan institute in Washington, D.C.

Glynn and Friedman, who also directs the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, which studies the "relationship between work and the rest of life" of its students and alumni, point to a lack of flexibility, growing demands on employees' time and embarrassingly few supports for working families, like paid family and medical leave and high-quality child care.

"I think it's as bad as it's been," Friedman told the Deseret News. "We're starting to see the counter revolution — the slow (non-processed) food movement becomes the slow careers movement. It's getting worse, but there are more and more voices that are rising to say, 'Wait a minute, this isn't working.'"


Before her son, Jack, was born, Brie Reynolds, 32, worked out an arrangement with her boss where she would take 10 weeks of maternity leave, 6 of those paid, and then come back part time for a month to help her ramp up to full time.

Yet eight days after maternity leave ended and already knee deep in projects with her team of writers at, the Dallas' mom knew she wasn't ready to come back yet.

"Thankfully, I was able to go to my boss without even thinking, 'Am I going to lose my job? Will this reflect badly on me?' We had a good relationship, and I know the company is so flexible ... so I just ...(told) her the truth — that I'm not ready yet."

Together they arranged for Reynolds to take another two months of unpaid maternity leave, which she and her husband, Shaun, were fortunate enough to be able to afford. When she finally went back to her full-time role as director of content and community in October, she was ready.

"It made me feel like I was able to make the right decision for me and my family," Reynolds said, "and I didn't have to worry about whether or not my job would still be there."

Many new parents aren't so lucky.

The United States is one of the very few countries in the world that doesn't provide some type of paid family leave. Reynolds has had friends with similar struggles, but without the workplace flexibility and understanding boss had to choose between keeping their job at the expense of their family or just walking away.

"That's really problematic," says Jennifer Randles, a sociology professor at California State University, Fresno. "Right after having the baby (many) can't afford to take time off work. If we really believe in the idea that we often say we do, that family is first...and children are our future, we often don't put our money where our rhetoric is."

Instead, the federal Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 offers 12 weeks of unpaid, job-secured leave (often augmented by accrued vacation or sick pay) to recover from an illness, care for a new or adopted baby, or care for a seriously ill parent, spouse or child — if that employee and their company meet a variety of conditions.

A 2012 report for the Department of Labor found that only 1 in 6 work sites were covered by FMLA and only 13 percent of employees took FMLA leave. Many more don't take it because they can't afford to go weeks without a paycheck. Others avoid it because of the perceived or actual consequences that come from taking time off work — all factors that may push Millennials out of parenthood, experts say.

While the first step is to encourage companies, states and the federal government to make paid leave available for both men and women, the next and ongoing step is to make taking such leave acceptable and even encouraged, says Alice Eagly, a social psychologist at Northwestern University and faculty fellow in the Institute for Policy Research.

"If only women (take parental leave) only women's careers get compromised," Eagly says. "(It requires) attitude changes on the part of the men and the organization, that they don't think it's a horrible thing for a man to take leave."

After all, men are parents too, and often get left out of the discussion on work/life balance, despite often feeling higher levels of stress in some areas. While 73 percent of mothers say they're doing a good or excellent job as mothers, only 64 percent of fathers feel that way, according to Pew Research Center. And 46 percent of dads say they're not spending enough time with kids, compared with 23 percent of mothers.

"When it's not just women who are needing flexibility to provide care for their kids…it normalizes it," says Glynn. "Then it just becomes 'This is just what workers need.' Not just 'what women workers need.' When everyone's taking (leave), then the penalties start to fall away."


Martha Bean was 5 when her father died and her mother had to go back to work, teaching at the local university.

"I really felt like I was competing for my mom's attention with a job," Bean said. "It wasn't her fault. She did everything to mitigate that, but it was hard for me to feel that I was important, if I didn't feel like I could take my mom's time. She seemed really busy. I didn't want my kids to feel that way."

While not every woman has the freedom or financial ability to stay at home full time, Bean knew that's where she always wanted to be.

In one 2012 study, Pew Research Center found that 47 percent of mothers said their ideal situation would be to work part time. Only 32 percent said full-time work would be ideal.

Bean worked full time at Google for two years, first in Ann Arbor, Mich., then in Boston. But after she and her husband, Devin, had baby Peter, even accommodating managers, lengthy parental and baby-bonding leave, and on-site child care wasn't enough to convince her to work a full eight-hour shift.

Now that Peter is 1, she's considering starting a master's degree part time, or perhaps looking for part-time work, but whatever she does, she'll make sure it supports the family balance they've come to enjoy in this season of their lives.

"I know that my husband very much appreciates me being able to be home," says Bean, 25, who lives in Chantilly, Va. "What it means is that all of the time that we're able to be together is family time, and we're not focusing on grocery shopping...or on a lot of daily tasks...we're spending time with each other which makes it a lot less stressful, which is nice."


In addition to support for large life-changing events, like having children, more employees, especially Millennials want "greater freedom, more fun and greater control over their time," says Friedman.

They're pushing back against a culture of "overwork" with its 70-80 hour work weeks and the unspoken rule that an individual has to sacrifice their family to succeed in their career.

In 1969, couples ages 25-54 worked an average of 56 hours a week, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2000, couples together averaged 67 hours.

Trying to reverse that trend, BambooHR, which provides online HR software, has a company-wide policy of no more than 40-hour work weeks.

"The reality is (overwork) is so much of our world today," says Ryan Sanders, 38, BambooHR's COO. "You feel like, 'If I can just get a couple more things done, tomorrow's going to be great.' You could say that everyday. There's no end to the work to be done."

Instead of offering financial incentives for overwork, super fun workspaces that encourage mid-day breaks, or incredible benefits packages, BambooHR simply tells its 70 employees, many of whom are Millennials, to stay focused, work hard and then go home.

Turns out this policy isn't just good for employee morale and work/life balance.

The company, founded in 2008, has already seen triple-digit growth in revenue, particularly in the last 12 months, Sanders said.

At PwC, where by 2016, 80 percent of its workforce will be Millennials, the audit and assurance, consulting and tax services firm is piloting in two locations a "10+2" program where individuals can choose to work 10 months of the year and take off two for a slightly reduced salary.

Employees can also create their own flexibility plans within teams, outlining what they want their days and weeks to look like during lengthy and often stressful projects.

"In order to succeed in the business, we need to embrace change and be flexible with our employees and figure out what's important to them," says Ryan Dent, a Salt Lake City-based PwC assurance partner.

And when employees get time off, whether for maternity or paternity leave, or just "getting home early one night to recharge, we find our people's performance really improves," Dent said.

Down in Texas, Reynolds works full-time from home, which means that she and Jack, now 10 months old, get to enjoy unrushed time together in the morning before she walks him to day care, and then heads home to tackle her writing projects. By 4:30 p.m., she's back with Jack and can push off any extra work till he's asleep, being both the dedicated employee and devoted mother she wants to be.

"That's what I'm advocating for," Friedman says, "Trying to affect policy, both at the social policy level, public policy level as well as in companies. It makes sense for our economy to have healthier people living lives ... they want to live."

Stewart Friedman's seven policy changes so American workers can have kids:

1. Provide world-class child care

2. Make family leave universally available

3. Revise the education calendar

4. Support portable health care

5. Relieve students of burdensome debt

6. Display a variety of role models and career paths

7. Require public service