How Gen Y may just win the feminist war their moms and grandmas started, without really trying

My journalism training is making me give you the thesis of this post before I jump into my full rant, so here goes: because of an attitude Generation Y workers have towards work/life balance that many older generations are dubbing “selfishness” and “me-first”ness, this generation’s women may actually BE the first to have what a lot of our European counterparts take for granted: paid time off to give birth and actually be with their infants past the two-month mark, as well as possibly better options for daycare, and an overall better work/life balance for both moms and dads.

Despite my best efforts, I keep getting clumped into the “Generation Y” or “Millennial” generation: someone born between 1982 – 1999. So I just barely squeak in. I’m a cusp kid. Anyway, as an unofficial millennial, and as the older sibling of one, I get somewhat defensive when we/they are described as selfish and needy, as the “trophy” generation (everyone gets a participation trophy!). First, we’re young and many of us don’t have a lot of demands on us yet like mortgages, spouses, kids, expensive cars; in fact many of us are delaying these for a decade beyond what our parents did, or shunning them altogether. Second, Generation X was TOTALLY the first “trophy” generation with “what about me” whiny attitudes, etc., so don’t blame us for being  super needy; we’re just following our older siblings’ and parent’s example. 😛

BUT, defensiveness aside, I get that we’re demanding and loud and are asking for stuff that nobody in previous generations would have even thought to ask for in their wildest dreams. Speaking to our elders as peers, doing work we actually care about from day one. In some ways even I find this attitude to be presumptive. But there’s a good argument for why we’re doing this, besides just being young and naive: it’s called backlash. As Emily Matchar wrote in a recent article in the Washington Post “How those spoiled millennials will make the workplace better for everyone“:

…the modern workplace frankly stinks…

Few developed countries demand as much from their workers as the United States. Americans spend more time at the office than citizens of most other developed nations. Annually, we work 408 hours morethan the Dutch, 374 hours more than the Germans and 311 hours more than the French. We even work 59 hours more than the stereotypically nose-to-the-grindstone Japanese. Though women make up half of the American workforce, the United States is the only country in the developed world without guaranteed paid maternity leave.

All this hard work is done for less and less reward. Wages have been stagnant for years, benefits shorn, opportunities for advancement blocked. While the richest Americans get richer, middle-class workers are left to do more with less. Because jobs are scarce and we’re used to a hierarchical workforce, we accept things the way they are. Worse, we’ve taken our overwork as a badge of pride.

Matchar argues that this generation has been the first to be empowered enough to say “enough is enough” and ask for some of our lives back.

It’s not like we’re slackers, either. We form companies like Facebook; we invent new life-saving ideas like invisible bike helmets. We also suffer from some of the earliest burnout. So we’re calling “uncle,” and asking to find a balance that works for everyone.

For many women, that includes having kids but still being considered viable in the workforce. And now, thanks to our “selfishness” we may just pull it off. Many Gen Y women don’t want to identify as feminists, and yet we are acting and reacting in perfect feminist form: asking for the same perks that our peers get, not just in the U.S. but in other developed countries around the world. As Matchar points out…

Beyond that, Gen Y’s demands may eventually help bring about the family-friendly policies for which working mothers have been leading the fight. Though the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 afforded some protections for working parents, genuine flexibility is still a privilege of the lucky few, and parents who try to leave the office at 5:30 p.m. are often accused of not pulling their weight. Well, guess what? Now everybody wants to leave the office at 5:30. Because they’ve got band practice. Or dinner with their grandma. Or they need to walk their rescue puppy.

Fighting for parents’ rights isn’t going to just benefit working moms, it’s going to benefit everyone, at least the way Generation Y is going about it.

I think another thing that makes us unique is just how globally connected we are. Because of the Internet and social networking, we have friends all over the world, and we travel more than any previous generation. This gives us more insight into how other people live. I recently sat down with a friend from the Netherlands, who asked me how much time I got off work when my baby was born. I told her I could take up to six months, but it would be unpaid, and that included any time I wanted to take off before the baby was born. Most women at my work still only take about 12 weeks off. She was flabbergasted, and I was clueless until then the options they were given in the Netherlands (try 16 weeks, paid! Plus 6 weeks off before the kid’s born). This helped me in my decision to try staying out longer and not buying into the peer pressure of older generations to pop out the kid and go right back t work.

This makes me kind of proud to be a Gen Y, and maybe will make me stand up a little bit more for my rights as a worker. Thanks, you selfish Millennials.


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