Jack Welch's words hit a nerve for me, and for you, too, judging by the number and thoughtfulness of the comments. I've been mulling them over ever since hitting "publish." Hope you'll indulge me in an addendum.
Work-life balance is something no one expected to achieve years ago. Mad Men didn't ponder the problem when they put on their fedoras and left for the train. Nor did most housewives waving goodbye to them angst about combining cake-baking with a career. I assume they, like most humans, yearned for greater fulfillment. But they never expected to have it all. No one had suggested that such a thing would be possible.
Enter the 60s. (Which, FYI younger readers, technically didn't hit until 1968.) The Age of Aquarius. Era of first generation Mood-Enhancers. Rock n Roll. The Pill. Suddenly, caveats long in place disappeared. You could engage in sex without getting pregnant. Guzzle soda pop without adding calories. Wear your hair long no matter what sex you were. We came to expect that anything was made possible by a combination of modern technology and old fashioned ingenuity.
Now, fast forward to the era of niche-marketing and customization. When everything from carry-out coffee to the new car you're ordering to heck, even your kid's education, can be customized to suit, retrofitted to your particular needs and individual desires. When we get what we want, we're used to getting it exactly, or at least asking for it. So it's a rude shock to encounter a situation where that just isn't viable, one in which the tough choices Welch talked about need to be made.
"At our company, we do everything we can to be correct," said a partner at a management consulting firm I was seated next to at a dinner party. "We put in 10 years training women just like we do men. Then, just when they hit their peak professionally, around 40, they drop out. They have to. They're pregnant or they have small children and can't keep up the pace. No one can put in the hours, time, travel it takes in this business and also raise small children."
Like Welch, he was forgetting that while women are the only employees who get pregnant, they're not the only ones who have children. Fathers have to make tough choices, too.
But what about the choices companies have to make?
For over a century, American corporate culture has chosen to reward most handsomely one type of employee: the workaholic with a stay at home spouse. If we are to reap the benefits of contributions by other workers, we must somehow change this model to accommodate them.
Of course, we've come a long way since the days of Don Draper. Family leaves (not just maternity leaves) are in place in most companies. Flex times and home-based offices are often allowed for. A bill signed into law recently in Colorado allows parents who work for big companies time off to attend school conferences.
But if real change is to be effected, shifts in policies and laws must be accompanied by shifts in attitudes on the part of top management. They must reshape orthodox notions of work to include alternative workstyles and schedules. And condone these alternatives by reassuring employees that temporarily taking advantage of them won't permanently relegate them to the B team.
Not long ago, a man felt obliged to confess to me that he went back to work before his paternity leave was up. He admitted that he was anxious to get back to work because staying home with a newborn wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Besides, he pointed out, his absence was hard on his co-workers and he felt a sense of responsibility to return. But what about his co-worker at home?
If we are to solve the work-life dilemma, we can't continue to subordinate the job of childcare. Raising the next generation of employees has to begin to be seen as important work. Study after study documents the connection between parental involvement and a child's success. Let's groom top management to see that connection. Let's stop referring to women and men home taking care of kids as people "who don't work." Let's expect managers, male and female, to recognize that parenting is not a spectator sport.