The new Pew Research Center report on the gender wage gap and work attitudes among millennials shows that, in median hourly earnings, 25- to 34-year-old women make 93% as much as men make. If you include all age groups, that number falls to 84%—and millennials' wage gap could increase as they start families. Unless you somehow missed the great Lean In debate of 2013, however, many of Pew's findings will seem like old news. But one set of figures in the report leapt out at me: people's views on family-related career interruptions.
Fully 94% of those who reduced their work hours or took a significant amount of time off to care for a child or other family member are glad they did, despite the negative career consequences that many experienced. Those who turned down a promotion or quit their job to do the same expressed similar levels of satisfaction (88% and 87%, respectively). And those numbers cover quite a few people: 65% of mothers, 45% of fathers, and roughly 25% of childless men and women report having experienced at least one of these career interruptions to care for a family member.
But why should it come as a surprise that many Americans are willing to put their family above their career? Despite the cliche about deathbed regrets (“No one ever said on their deathbed, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office’”), recent discussions about work-family balance emphasize the many ways that caring for a family can stunt careers and focus on those who wish they'd never stopped working in the first place. Moreover, most work/family public policy proposals, from free universal daycare to tax reform, focus on keeping parents constantly in the workforce. As Zoe Williams lamented in the Guardian last month,
Women, by modern logic, win by having economic agency and lose by being economically excluded. Children, having no productive contribution to make, are either a neutral value in the equation, an appendage of the mother, or a negative value, a drain on the mother. What if the mother wants to hang out with the child, not because she has been subjugated by the patriarchy but because she thinks the child is awesome? What if the father does too? Well, that point of view makes no financial sense, so unfortunately cannot be included in our discussion. . . .
People want the freedom to react to things – an illness, an irrational hatred of nursery – without that signifying a lack of professional commitment. Never mind women, this is what all parents want: some recognition, from the workplace and beyond, that there is more to life than making money, and yet that making money is a blessed diversion from full-time making a mess.
We should, to be sure, try to make work and family life more compatible, for the sake of men as well as women. Yet at some point, tradeoffs may be inevitable. When people faced with a tradeoff freely choose to prioritize their family above their career, we should stop regarding them as an object of pity and support them instead.