Flexible Work Is Key Issue for Opt-Outers and On-Rampers

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Last night, I attended an event at Merrill Lynch hosted by Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. It was called the Back in Business Roadshow, and the multi-city tour is meant to appeal to women and men who have stepped off the career treadmill and are looking to step back on.

The panelists painted a fairly rosy picture of all that corporate America is doing to help these workers back into the workforce. Lois Backon of Families & Work Institute flattened us with a slew of statistics about today’s workers: 52% are above 30; men and women are almost equally represented; 33% have “significant eldercare responsibilities.” Mary MacDonald of Merrill and Anne Weisberg of Deloitte Touche discussed their respective firms’ seemingly enlightened approach to “nontraditional” workers (us non-white non-males, I guess). And Bette Rice shared her experiences in the Tuck program.

But one theme kept coming up: flexibility. It’s desired by 78% of workers, said Backon, so much so that it’s resulted in what she called “reduced aspirations.” Consider this: in 1992, 68% of men wanted jobs with more responsibility. In 2007, it’s down to 52%. Among women, 57% wanted more responsibility in back then; 36% do now.

What does that mean? What about all the talk about the growth of extreme work–take Stephanie Armour’s article on workaholism today in USA Today, or Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s latest book, Off-Ramps and On-Ramps (she coined the term “extreme work” in the study the book is based on)? Is the extreme-worker phenomenon garbage?

I argue: yes. My generation doesn’t want to work more just for the sake of working more. Sure, there are people like my brother-in-law, who logs 80-hour weeks and jets off to London and L.A. for red-eye meetings. Then again, he’s got five mouths to feed (four kids, plus my sister, who packs away a lot of sugary cereal for a skinny chick).

Between us, my job and my husband’s pay just enough to support our family. I have no desire right now to take on more responsibility for the pay or status or whatever; what I want is to do what I do and do it well, then get home to feed my kid her peas and rice.

Tuck conducted a survey that found a lot of people feel the same way. Many corporate types want to step off that hamster wheel altogether, if only for a break. Here, some findings:

KEY FINDING: People who consider taking career breaks and who want more flexibility aren’t an aberration but instead reflect a broader overall shift in the traditional model of workday arrangements and a linear career path—particularly among Gen Xers as compared to Baby Boomers.

63% of respondents said they would consider leaving the workplace for a period of time—a majority of both men (58%) and women (68%).

Younger workers (26–41 years old) are the most likely to say they would consider taking a career break (70%).

The primary reasons for desiring to leave the workforce for a period of time were parenthood (63%), an avocation/life outside of work (43%), stress/burnout (37%), and entrepreneurship (35%).

KEY FINDING: Employees look to a host of options to break the traditional workday arrangement and career path model. When asked how they would improve their current work situation, the most cited requests included:

28% of respondents want more day-to-day informal flexibility, and younger employees (26–41 years old) are most likely to want this flexibility (32%).

20% would like the flexibility to telecommute, and younger employees (26–41 years old) are most likely to want this flexibility (25%).

17% suggest that project-based consulting work would improve their current work situation.

For 14%, a reduced schedule would improve their current work situation.