The hallmarks of “hustle culture” are becoming ever more apparent in the cheery gospel of TGIM, and the instagrammers not so humbly bragging “Do what you love and you’ll kinda work all the time.”
One big problem with this neat narrative on workism we’re being sold, and then—at least some of us—selling ourselves: It erases the female side of the equation. It discounts the work done beyond WeWorks, the invisible labor just as all-consuming as our 9-to-5s. (Or 9-till-9s, or 9-till-sleep.)
Women will be the first victims of the burnout economy. Our jobs will demand more and more of our days, but our domestic and childcare responsibilities won’t shrink. This is an age-old conundrum, but the “baby penalty” leveled on women is particularly harsh on millennials aging into an economy making a religion out of work.
We’re told that our careers should define us, that we should worship at the altar of our cubicles. Where we don’t find meaning in the Bible, we look instead to a bottomless inbox and Sisyphean to-do list. Yet then we’re informed that we’ve failed at some defining test of femininity if we don’t take on the very role that undercuts all our professional ambitions: motherhood.
Research shows that despite women’s professional advancements, our fertility still poses a real threat to our careers. Only 20 percent of partners at major law firms are women; unsurprisingly, a survey of 350 law firms found that just 1 percent of male attorneys are responsible for arranging childcare, and 11 percent said they cook. For male academics, having children is a professional advantage; for women, it’s a “career-killer” associated with lower rates of tenure. In medicine, female doctors make less money than men and are more likely to express symptoms of depression—which is largely attributed to work-family conflict.
We’ve known for decades that women shoulder a disproportionate amount of childcare and domestic responsibilities, even when we’re the household breadwinners. In fact, the less a man makes compared to his wife, the less he’ll do housework. In other words, it doesn’t matter how many hours women work, or for how much pay—we’ll still complete the vast majority of chores. This means that in a white-collar economy that demands unending workdays, women will face one of two scenarios: Either we’ll be even more tired and miserable than overworked men, or we’ll be penalized for coming up short of the time put in by our male counterparts.
As millennial women, we encounter a catch-22. If we have children, we’ll be inevitably saddled with the childcare and domestic labor that our partners can dodge. We might lose the chance to get tenure, to make partner at a firm. To do so in an age when we’re told that work is our church feels sacrilegious. But to decide, then, that we’ll surrender parenthood feels like some forfeiture of our birthright, or like a perverse reversal of The Handmaid’s Tale.
American women are actually having fewer babies than ever before. In 2018, the fertility rate hit a record low for the second consecutive year. Of the young women surveyed by the New York Times, 36 percent attribute this trend to concerns over work-life balance.
There’s a dystopian future underlying that false choice between parenthood and professional success. For generations, giving birth has been a more reliable safety net than a retirement plan. By raising educated, hardworking kids we can rest assured that we’ll have someone to care for us in our old age. Our jobs certainly don’t make that same promise. In a gig economy where many workers lack even 401ks, nobody has signed on to watch us after our prime. Between our careers and genetic lines, we’ve chosen the former—and our bosses won’t be moving us into nice retirement homes. Compounding that dilemma, psychological studies show that many still view those who don’t have children as patently immoral.
From every direction, the workaholic economy puts women in a bind. Either we’re slackers, or we’ re soulless; we betray our millennial cohort, or we’re traitors to our sex.
There’s a policy prescription that can provide an answer to this dilemma: mandated paternity leave. Many Scandinavian countries have modeled what flexible, effective paternity leave looks like. In Sweden, new parents get 480 days of leave with 90 reserved specifically for dads. Finnish fathers are granted eight weeks of leave, and an additional 23 can be split between mom and dad. Because there can be cultural pressure on men to decline these offers and stay at work, there’s at least one U.S.-based company that’s mandating 12 weeks of paid leave for dads. To some, this policy seems revolutionary—but with men complaining of professional fatigue and women feeling the effects of unshared childcare, it’s also just common sense.
Building the political will to pass mandated paid paternity leave will take time, likely decades. In the meantime, we owe it to ourselves to tell a more nuanced story of the workaholic economy and its effects. Millennial men may call it burnout; to women, it’s nothing short of an identity crisis.