Shift in Work-Life Relationship Will Take Hold in the New Year

January 9, 2002 | By Sue Shellenbarger

Stop. Take a deep breath. With the new year just a week old, in what direction are you heading?

Many people are asking themselves that question, mindful of the wisdom of the proverb: If you don’t change course, you will end up where you are headed. As a society, we’re setting off in some new directions. Here are some trends to watch:

The coming year will bring deepening work-life conflict for millions, as workers’ post-Sept. 11 reordering of priorities clashes with a recession-induced speed-up at work. The far-reaching shift in values predicted last September in this column, stressing family, friends and community over career, status and money, will continue to play out.

“Sept. 11 has caused a remarkable number of people across the country to call a time-out for themselves, and ask two questions: What’s really important to me? And, why am I here?” says Gil Gordon, a Monmouth Junction, N.J., consultant and author of “Turn It Off,” a book on drawing boundaries on work.

The upside for employers: Workers’ new seriousness will render them more receptive to lofty corporate mission statements and more motivated to be efficient, jettisoning busywork. Companies’ voluntarism and philanthropy will yield more bang for the buck. The flip side: Employees will have less patience with foggy or misguided leadership. And they’ll be quicker to resist outsized post-layoff workloads.

Nowhere will this pattern be more pronounced than among what author-historian William Strauss calls the Millennial Generation, who at ages 19 and under are hardest-hit by both worries over potential military-service demands and the recession. For them, “Sept. 11 was a huge generational marker,” he says. He sees these stressed young workers changing what it means to be young in America as profoundly as baby boomers did in the 1960s, but in different directions—toward patience, positivism, order and community.

Ideally, more people will find ways to integrate their changed values with work. Days after the terrorist attacks, Peter Wilkes, managing director of a New York investment-research firm, sent a memo to clients, customers and others “to reaffirm my displaced stewardship role,” a commitment to selfless service. The memo drew thanks from 50 recipients. Mr. Wilkes also resolved what he calls unfinished business in his family life, apologizing to his adult children for the hurts they suffered in his past divorce. “It was hard for me to do, but I was just so happy I did it,” he says.

More men will chart new career paths that allow time for fatherhood. The evidence will be anecdotal. Dads like Paul Entin, who started his own Washington, N.J., industrial-marketing company to better integrate fathering his three-year-old son, or Raymond Quinones, a Florida father of three who recently switched to teaching from a corporate job, don’t show up in any stats.

Their rewards will be quiet ones. “Being a dad is my greatest blessing,” Mr. Quinones says. “To me, it’s a matter of priorities.” Many fathers, mindful of their working wives’ overload, consider their expanded roles at home a no-brainer. John Trucillo, an Old Bridge, N.J., information-systems manager who spends six hours a day on housework and child care, says simply, “You do what you gotta do.”

Nevertheless, these involved dads will gradually replace old, inaccurate Mr. Mom stereotypes with a broader definition of masculinity. In five years, Mr. Entin predicts, dads’ insistence on better work-family balance will assume the same visibility as divorcing dads’ court battles for child custody have acquired.

The Jetsons will be ever more with us, as working families stretch the envelope using high-tech gear to stay connected.

Chris Stoutjesdyk, a Jenison, Mich., grandmother, uses a Logitech Internet camera to send images of herself to her two toddler grandchildren, who live in a nearby town. The children kiss the screen and pet the image of their grandmother’s dog sitting in her lap, she says. “It’s special bond we have,” she says.

Learning will become a full-fledged life role, competing with work, family and personal pursuits for a spot on jugglers’ agenda.

Accelerating change on all fronts, from technology and consumer products to foreign affairs and cultural shifts, demands more learning of those who care to keep up. Americans believe learning will be the most valued aspect of their lives as they reach old age, says a random Hilton Hotels survey of 1,220 participants nationwide.

Steve McHale, a Costa Mesa, Calif., business analyst, spends his lunch reading about current affairs and brushing up on new technologies. After hours he takes classes in dancing or yoga, and plans to enroll in a Spanish class to keep pace with cultural change. Weekends, he learns new software.

When to fit it all in? “Perhaps as everybody understands that they have to learn new stuff, they can learn it together as family units or as circles of friends,” Mr. McHale suggests. “Maybe family barbeques will be forums where friends can teach each other their new gadgets.”