Penelope Trunk on Generation, Gender and Work

How does your generation affect how you work?
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How does your generation affect how you work? I interviewed Penelope Trunk, founder of Brazen Careerist. Each week Trunk speaks about work and life to 30,000 readers on her blog. Her blogging is naked, and it's often about careers and work issues, which is unusual and compelling. I'm a Gen X-er and so I was curious what Trunk thinks of my often-maligned generation. We also talked about hard choices and maternity leave. Trunk was brutally honest about the trade offs we have to make in life and work. Do you agree with her classification below?

Trunk began our interview by discussing Millennials' inherent optimism and their ability to merge work and life. You can read her Gen Y comments here. Perhaps it's because few Gen Y-ers have kids now, so boundary setting is less important. Perhaps it's because they grew up with technology. When work is life and life is work and life technology use, it tends to merge. It's not true for Gen X-ers. Trunk says, Gen X is "is consumed with being good parents." And so I asked:

Q: How much of this is a function of lifestage? Do you see the recession changing Gen Y attitudes?

A: Gen Y is sweating the recession the least -- they are sunny and optimistic and they never expected job security anyway. They never expected to have a lot of money, they are a financial train wreck -- their parents can't pay back the college loans. The kids are saddled with the loans, and real wages have plummeted, the cost of college skyrocketed. Generation Y never expected to be rich. They never expected job security. They love their parents; they love being part of teams. The recession can't bring them down. On top of that the recession is hitting Baby Boomers disproportionately.

Generation X faces the recession saying, 'It's so hard to take care of our kids.' Gen X is consumed with being good parents. And Boomers are facing the recession by saying, 'the world isn't fair.' The Boomers are getting hit financially the worst, cause they're the least employable right now.

Everyone faces everything the same way each time. Gen X is consumed with being good parents.

Q: So you think that's why their work/life conflict is so high?

A: It's self-reported -- if you asked a male in 1977 if his work/life conflict was high, he'd say, no, 100 percent no. We know now the conflict was actually high. They sold off their ability to be parents so they could run corporate America. The self-reported question only reveals how prominent the discussion is in the media. But in terms of the tool set people have to control how they do their personal life....[is great].

The tool set women have is huge. There's no excuse for women not getting what they want, which means that the conflict is that we don't have good practice knowing what we want. But we have great tools to get it, and this is true of men, too. So Gen X men are much more conflicted in terms of how to balance work than older generations. But Gen X men just turn down promotions. They have a great tool set. They have a wife who can work. They don't have to have a huge house. They don't feel compelled to drive a BMW. I just think the tool set people have today is amazing. The self-reported conflict is just the media.

Q: What about the media story that women are scared to take maternity leave?

A: Was there a time women weren't scared to take maternity leave? Women should always be scared because it's a door closing. You decide if you want to be on partner track, you decide if you want to be a stay at home mom. You decide your choices -- it was always a door closer. It is not news. Being an adult is about making difficult choices, and we're really lucky that we have a wider range of choices today. It's not a recession issue that choices in work-life are difficult. I just think it's the dumbest news story ever -- if it weren't hard to take maternity leave it would be ridiculous. Maternity leave should be a hard decision. You're choosing not to work as hard as the people who are going to get the farthest in corporate life. You have to decide if that's what you want. School does not teach us how to make those decisions. You have to teach yourself how to make decisions. It's very scary, it's very intimidating, and it's what our job is as adults is, is to make decisions about what matters to us and what doesn't. Adult life is about shutting doors -- your whole childhood your parents say, 'You can be anything, you can do anything.' And being an adult is about the whole process of learning that you can't.

It's self-knowledge, not resiliency. It's testing yourself all the time and being honest. We don't need to be limited by what people have done before us, only by what we can think of. Understanding that is really helpful in understanding yourself. Then you understand yourself in a more true way. You're not limited by social tropes. I think it's very scary to do things other people aren't doing.

I just got divorced and my ex-husband lives in the house with me and the kids and I had my boyfriend stay over. So I had my boyfriend and my husband sleeping over the same night. And I was really scared to tell people...but actually, it enabled me to travel the next day. It enabled me to have a great parenting structure for me and my kids. It enabled me to make enough money so that I can have a wide range of choices. So I think all of us owning up to exceptional choices we make that are scary helps everyone else to feel like makes us feel like the range of tools we have for gaining self knowledge are good.

Q: What are your top 3 nuggets of advice for working mothers?

A: Don't classify yourself as a working mother. It's totally stupid. What is everyone else? You can gain more self-understanding by giving yourself a wider classification.

Always be giving yourself freedom to retool your values. It can change. What's most important to you -- just that day. You just have to know for that day. People change.

Be brave.

I have a lot of household help. We don't have couches or furniture. We haven't ever been on a family vacation. I spend all my money on help- so that I can have the widest range of choices possible. I have a household manager, nanny, a cleaning woman, basically a husband who takes of the kids, a boyfriend who pitches in with the kids. I have tons and tons of household help; it looks really unconventional. I have a five-bedroom house with 3 empty bedrooms. I don't spend any money buying stuff. It's a great example if you give yourself a chance to do things a little unconventionally, you can do more of what you want. The household manager tells everyone where to go. People say they could never afford all that help -- but it's just what you're willing to give up. I don't think I have taken the kids out to dinner in maybe three years. You look at the tradeoff.

How do people deal with the conflict of adult life? You have to look so carefully at what you have to give up. It's all about 'what you can give up'? It's a sad reality we have to give up so much. We're not taught that message. It's like parents have a hard enough time doing it themselves, let alone teaching their kids.

The only teaching we get about this is religious. Why don't we teach that in a secular way?

On the bright side,Trunk noted social media has the potential to help women in particular maintain a strong personal brand whether or not they're employed by a company.

I see people moving in and out of corporate America more. Social networking allows us to maintain our identity independent of the companies were at, allows us to maintain a brand independent of our company. It makes the whole 'opting in and opting out' or 'working mom' thing irrelevant. We're all of those.