Juggling the work/life balance

February 22, 2012, 11:04 PM GMT+0

Women in the 21st century could be forgiven for sometimes thinking they’ve been given a pretty rough deal. Balancing work pressures and family pressures is hard enough for anyone, but the ongoing debate about whether or not women can – or should – be expected to succeed at both reminds women that there are still some choices to be made, that – biologically, of course – men don’t have to make.

In this week’s Economist/YouGov poll, 73% nationally think it’s possible for women in America to have a full-time job and do a good job of raising a family, rising to 77% among women themselves. As a nation we obviously believe that it’s true, and it’s empowering to women to know we have options, but it certainly seems like a lot of pressure we’re putting on ourselves to succeed at juggling what can both be very full-time occupations.

The last few decades have played out pretty interestingly where women and the economy are concerned. I was lucky enough to grow up in a generation of apparent gender equality; where women were equally as likely (if not more so) to do well at college as men, find a successful, fulfilling career – if they wanted to – and earn decent money independently of their marital status. Yet, despite achieving great things where equality of opportunity in the workplace is concerned, I can’t help but think that men and women’s experiences of home life and work life are always going to be very different.

The concept of a ‘Bridget Jones generation’ is one which is becoming increasingly apparent in America’s cities: glamorous, urban women in their late-30s and early-40s are realizing as time goes on that, much like Renée Zellweger’s eponymous character, they’ve been duped. Throughout the 1970s, women were promised the world, and conditioned to think they could ‘have it all’: the husband, the kids, the illustrious career…but many are gradually coming to realize what they weren’t told: that too long spent focusing on building a rewarding career might have come at the expense of a rewarding family life, and they have found themselves running out of time in which to find that person with whom they want to raise children.

Where these women were duped was in being led to believe that all of these things would just come naturally, without being told that a new focus on a successful career might also require a new, business-like focus on achieving the personal life you want to achieve. It is great that American women have the choices available to do whatever it is they want to do with their lives, but that doesn’t mean that women don’t still have pretty fundamental choices to make, compared to men, and much less time in which to make them.

Interestingly, it is the younger generation in America today, not the older folks, who are less sure about the feasibility of doing both the career-thing and the family-thing, as though they’re learning from the mistakes of the Bridget Jones generation. One in every five respondents aged 18-29 said they were ‘not sure’ about the possibility of doing both (20%), compared to just one in twenty of the over-65s (5%) and around one in seven of those in between (14%). Perhaps where today’s economy is concerned – and women’s role within it – there is a discrepancy between the perception and experience of managing to juggle everything. The western world has been telling us for decades that we, as women, can have the best of both worlds – and we clearly want to believe that we can. But the experience of some of our urban women suggests the opposite. Does any woman have the ability to do both, equally, 100 per cent? And should any woman really be expected to?

The young women of America clearly still have choices to be made about how they want to strike the career/family balance, and this week’s polling clearly points to uncertainty from those currently facing that decision about whether or not they can, in fact, ‘have it all’.