What HR can do about the ‘opt-out’ revolution (Guest commentary)

Many female Gen Xers are choosing to leave the workforce just when organizations are starting to really need them
By Charlotte Shelton and Laura Shelton
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/09/2006

If you’re a female baby boomer (born between 1946 and 1963) who has fought hard for equal opportunity, you may be reeling with confusion about why the Generation X women in your organization don’t appear to be as committed to their careers as you are. Some boomer women, in fact, are quite angry at the next generation, wondering if all their sacrifice was in vain.

Many Gen X women (born between 1964 and 1977) are much more interested in creating a balanced life than in shattering the glass ceiling. Some talented, well-educated women of this generation are actually opting out — leaving long commutes, goading bosses, gruelling work schedules and uncomfortable panty hose behind for lives that offer more balance and flexibility. While a few of these opt-out revolutionaries are becoming entrepreneurs or “mompreneurs” with home-based businesses, many others are reverting to the 1950s lifestyles of their grandmothers.

These women want to give their children more active parenting than many of them received as the first generation of kids who came home to an empty house after school. However, for many of these young women, the underlying reason behind their corporate escape is, quite simply, career disappointment.

Gen X women entered the workforce with great expectations. They grew up in equal opportunity classrooms and played on co-ed sports teams. The media provided them with lots of successful female role models and many of their moms were career women. These young women were told to dream big and reach for the stars. They are the most educated generation of women yet to enter the workforce and, arguably, they’ve been handed more opportunity than any of their female predecessors. Unfortunately, while their parents, teachers, coaches and recruiters were priming them for success, they failed to inform them of the obstacles they might encounter along the way.

Someone forgot to mention that bureaucracies still exist, paying your dues is still required and gender inequalities, though more subtle, remain a reality.

Data from the 1,200 Gen Xers surveyed for our book,

The NeXt Revolution: What Gen X Women Want at Work and How Their Boomer Bosses Can Help Them Get It

, show that a significant gender wage gap occurs before Gen Xers turn 30. A 29-year-old female engineering manager told us, “I’m disappointed with the pay I receive. It’s about $10,000 less than a male counterpart with the same job title, who doesn’t even have an undergraduate degree.” That’s a serious reality check.

Rather than staying around to fight for equality, Gen X women are increasingly opting out. This not only creates a serious talent drain, and a disconcerting silencing of the young female voice in organizations, but it is occurring just as a huge labour shortage is looming. There simply are not enough Gen Xers to take the place of boomers in the working world. Even if all of the next generation was engaged and productively employed, there would still be a pending shortage of skilled labour and a lurking talent war.

To address this looming labour shortage, boomer bosses must quit labelling their female Gen X employees as whiners with unrealistic expectations. They must find ways to listen to them. HR can lead the way.

As HR professionals listen to the needs of Gen X, they’re likely to learn Gen Xers want what everyone, regardless of generation or gender, wants: positive work relationships, interesting work and opportunities to learn. It’s a reasonable wish list, yet few companies have found ways to design work around these needs. Again, HR must lead the way by asking questions such as:

•Why is it so difficult to create satisfying and productive workplaces that provide positive relationships, interesting work and opportunities to learn and develop?

•Why do organizations continue to perpetuate hierarchy and bureaucracy when those things aren’t needed in a high-tech, new economy world that is changing at warp speed?

•Why do organizations insist everyone work a standard work week when flexibility is what so many Gen Xers want?

•Why hasn’t more progress been made with telecommuting and job sharing?

•Why haven’t organizations achieved gender equality?

These are but a few of the questions that matter to the next generation. HR practitioners are in the right place at the right time to champion new solutions and offer new alternatives in work design. It’s up to HR to educate the organization’s managers about new possibilities. Stop and take the time to ask Gen X what they really want. It will pay off in employee retention and workplace morale. HR needs to step up and imagine new ways of doing work.

Charlotte Shelton and Laura Shelton are the mother-and-daughter authors of The NeXt Revolution: What Gen X Women Want at Work and How Their Boomer Bosses Can Help Them Get It (Davies-Black, 2005). Charlotte can be reached at charlotte.shelton@rockhurst.edu. Laura, a Gen Xer herself, can be reached at laurashelton@myway.com.

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