There's a new dad on the block, and he's a millennial. This dad isn't wearing the same "Real dads don't babysit, they parent" t-shirt as his GenX neighbor. It didn't occur to him that he needed it. After all, he splits house and kid stuff with his wife and is equally comfortable wearing a Baby Bjorn. What a guy.
There's a fascinating shift underfoot about working parenthood, and it's most evident with millennial dads. Julia Beck of the It's Working Project has been tracking trends and attitudes on working parenthood for more than twenty years. As a long-time advocate for and consultant on the issue, she can't help but notice a change.
At the Dad 2.0 Summit, The State of Shared Parenting: So Much Done, So Much More To Do in February 2016, an expert panel including Beck, Josh Levs, Guy Raz, Chris Routly, and moderator Brigid Schulte chatted about the state of shared parenting. The key takeaway? Progress has been made, but the challenges of balancing work and life continue and are still very real for working parents. However, there was a difference in the attitudes among the dads there, and it seemed to be generational.
One interesting observation was this: what used to be maternity leave is now more frequently referred to in corporate policy and our common speech as parental leave. The change in terminology is interesting but not all that surprising when you reflect on the public discourse and emphasis on gaining more equity both at home and at work between the sexes.
"The pleasant surprise is not that parental leave exists, it's the fact that millennial dads are taking it without apology," Beck said.
While more dads are taking advantage of the benefits, GenX dads don't show the same level of comfort in taking all of the time allotted. They also don't appear to be as comfortable telling colleagues, bosses, or clients that that's what they're doing. I overheard a colleague on the phone tell a client that he'd be out for the next week because he had "use or lose" leave and needed to get the yard cleaned up for spring. When he hung up, I gave him an exaggerated eye roll. His wife was days away from having their second child. He just shrugged and laughed a little. I wasn't sure whether to feel bad for him because he didn't want to tell the truth or to feel bad for his wife if he was. (Being home but not home is a common complaint about dads within my circle of GenX moms.)
Why is this shift in attitudes happening now?
For one, it's a numbers game. Millennials are a large generation that wields the power of mass. The idea of being a good employer is really important right now. It's important to growing businesses to be known and recognized as a great place to work. The reason is the talent pipeline. Corporate social responsibility and family friendly policies are important to millennials. They want to be proud of their affiliations and choices. Companies want to make sure they're able to attract and retain the best possible staff and, to do that they need to make bold, noticeable changes in the way they operate.
Another reason for the shift is that millennials are looking for joy in all of the areas they choose to invest their time--work, hobbies, community, and relationships. Of course, parenthood is no exception. Further, millennials are looking for work/life fit. They want to be in a healthy relationship with their employer. They recognize the symbiotic relationship in which both sides need each other and know that this connection works best when both sides are getting what they need.
Unfortunately, millennial women aren't there yet. For one, they still report feeling that they bear a heavier load than their partners at work and at home. They're also not as comfortable yet with this newer, emboldened perspective on working parenthood and for good reason. Millennial women face the same gender equality issues at work that have been around for decades.
This reluctance to be as bold and open is likely because women continue to lag behind in pay and senior leadership positions. Many working women feel that their professional position is more tenuous than men feel about their positions. Beck speculates that part of the problem is the confidence gap between men and women in the workplace. Millennial women also worry that taking too much time off will cause them to lose ground on the promotion track and project leadership opportunities. As a result, millennial women are consciously pushing the "pause" button on their careers or making lateral moves for greater flexibility.
Part of the solution is in greater mentoring and encouragement of millennial moms. Leaders and managers can reassure them that there is a place for them in the organization before and after the arrival of a child and that that experience doesn't change their value to the business.
For previous generations, the challenge of juggling daycare coverage, business travel, meal preparation, homework help, and after-hours networking events (to name just a few of the issues) wasn't often openly discussed. Women of a not-so-long-ago era knew the real risk of losing your position or shutting down opportunities when you were perceived to be distracted or unreliable because of family obligations. Those women (many of whom are still working) were among the first to break through leadership and promotion barriers and can be excellent mentors for younger women, helping to create the environment that they wished was in place for them years before.
The second part of the solution is for dads--millennials and those from other generations--to be loud and proud about when and how they take leave, care for children, and get work done. Recent, visible examples are Mark Zuckerberg who publicly announced his leave plans and even shared a special letter that he and his wife wrote to their young daughter.
Beck shared another recent experience when she was emailing well-known and respected New York Times journalist, Ron Lieber. She received an out-of-office email stating that he was on parental leave, and if the sender were a dad, he'd encourage them to do the same.
Because millennial men appear to be more comfortable with the notion of working parenthood and unapologetically taking needed time off, we will see a cultural and attitudinal shift that will be better for parents and, ultimately, better for business.
Dads can lead by example and make it more common and, hence, more professionally acceptable to take time off and openly talk about it. One way to do that today is to check out the It's Working Project and consider contributing your story of working parenthood to the growing number of perspectives from dads. But only do that right after you start the next load of laundry, okay?