The Netherlands Model
In our book, we discuss how difficult it can be to share the breadwinning domain because it is the one area that directly interacts with forces outside the family. Bills have to be paid, jobs have to be found, benefits obtained, and schedules negotiated for both partners and both of their employers to allow an aspiring ESP couple to piece together the lifestyle that works for them.
In many ways, it is the breadwinning domain that causes couples to think outside the box the most - and to make the largest surface sacrifices - to get to the ultimate prizes of equality and balance.
Despite these challenges, we are optimistic about success for a few reasons. First of all, there are lots of data to suggest that young men and women view work differently than their parents do. They are much more likely to prioritize fitting work into their lives instead of the other way around. Secondly, as the Baby Boomers begin to retire, even they are realizing that "checking out" of the work world is not always desirable for both financial and non-financial reasons; many are looking to launch their "encore" career or hobby which will undoubtedly bring in a paycheck but can accomodate a non-traditional schedule or arrangement as a way to more fully enjoy their golden years. Retirement is passe.
These two groups - Gen Y and non-retiring Boomers - squeeze the labor market from both ends of the age spectrum, forcing companies to adapt as they compete for talent. The idea that this phenomenon might open up the way to easy flexible career coordination might sound like a pipe-dream to some as we continue to struggle with high unemployment in the US, but there are signs that these macro changes are already happening.
Just look at the Netherlands.
On December 29th, Katrin Bennhold wrote an article for the NY Times called, Working (Part-Time) in the 21st Century. The piece covers the continuing trend in the Netherlands to trade money for time. "Indeed, for a growing group of younger professionals, the appetite for a shorter, a more flexible workweek appears to be spreading, with implications for everything from gender identity to rush-hour traffic." In this country, part-time work is common - not just for lower-income careers but for lawyers, managers, engineers and even surgeons (a job we've been adamantly told by surgeon's wives just could not possibly be done in less than full-time hours). And these reduced hours jobs are being claimed not just by mothers, but by fathers and childless employees, with companies using this perk as a way to attract the best talent.
In fact, one in three Dutch fathers now works either part-time or full-time at four days per week so that he can be home at least one day per week with his kids. The percent of part-time women in the workforce is still far greater (75%), but this is actually helping the cause - as formerly male-dominated fields are being increasingly populated by women and forcing the change in thinking about part-time work.
The Dutch government is a help in these changes, rather than a hindrance. The government awarded its own "Modern Man Prize" for breaking gender stereotypes; the winner was chosen for co-founding a campaign that promotes part-time work for men - and for working four days a week himself. And interestingly, the Netherlands is the only country in which women actually work less than men, even after you add up hours spent on childcare and housework!
And our own Microsoft is right in the mix, at least when it comes to telecommuting flexibility. Featured in the article, Microsoft Netherlands boasts that ninety-five percent of its employees work from home at least one day a week; a full quarter do so four out of five days. "Each team has a "physical minimum;" some meet twice a week in the office, others once a quarter. Online communication and conference calls save time, fuel and paper waste. The company says it has cut its carbon footprint by 900 tons this year."
When we were interviewing couples for our book, a Dutch couple wrote to us and we spoke with them at length. Featured in the book, Jan and Saskia are a perfect example of this type of thinking about part-time work and equally shared parenting. Imagine a world where you aren't the odd couple for practicing ESP or working less than the prescribed 40+ hours - but that you had plenty of company in your neighbors, friends, and children's parents.
It will come. It is already here on our very own Earth.