Alina Gershuny is a typical professional woman under 30: ambitious, highly educated, and under pressure.
“Coming out of school you are like, 'OK I’m going to try and tackle things,'" she says.
Gershuny had bills to pay while trying to build a career and think about starting a family life. "You kind of have to decide which one is going to be achieved first.”
The 28-year-old isn’t the only one feeling squeezed. Many millennial women — defined loosely as those between the ages of 18 and 33 — feel pressure to lock down a career and family in their 20s. On top of this, the post-recession job market, full of temporary contracts and unstable positions, is making things a lot more difficult.
The term “millennial burnout syndrome,” was first coined by Forbes’ business writer Larissa Faw in 2011. She wrote that Generation Y women are “flaming out” of the corporate ladder because they are exhausting themselves during the first stressful years of building a career.
Erica Dhawan, a former employee of Lehman Brothers investment firm, and an expert on North American millennial women in the workplace, says burning out is a real and growing problem among women in this age group.
After years of post-secondary eductation, women who are lucky enough to get a first job are still struggling to advance their careers and build the foundations for long-term success.
Trying to build that foundation before having children, adds even more stress.
“Gen Y women feel they have to do everything before they’re 30, because once they have kids they won’t be able to. It’s a shift from prior generations,” Dhawan says, pressuring women to establish themselves before taking time off to have children.
This stress can drive Gen Y women to drop out of the workplace altogether, or just suffer under the strain.
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It’s not that being stressed over work-life balance is anything new. Women have been walking the tightrope between career and personal life since they entered the workplace en masse generations ago.
In the last 50 years, there’s been a general trend towards women having children at a later age. In the 1960s, the average age for a woman to have her first child was at 23. In 2008, it was close to 30, according to Statistics Canada.
But the aftermath of the recession, volatile job market and high rate of temporary contract work results in a perfect storm for women in this age group. Not only do they have to start building a career, some feel they also have to lock down a permanent job before they start thinking about a family.
Wayne Lewchuk, co-author of a study on temporary workers released in February by the United Way and McMaster University, found 40 per cent of adults in Toronto and Hamilton, Ont. do not have full-time permanent employment.
Lewchuk says this definitely has an effect on when women have children and could lead to declining fertility rates and smaller family sizes.
“I can certainly say that a number of women are delaying having kids because of the insecurity of their job,” he says. “If they were to leave to have a baby, there’s no guarantee of employment when they come back.”
For example, if a woman is on a temporary contract, she might not be able to secure another contract with the same organization after having a baby. Someone with a permanent position, however, knows her job will be there when she gets back and can plan to have a baby with this peace of mind.
ONE OR THE OTHER
Gershuny enjoys her current job but she’s not working in the immigration field she studied in. She wants to transition to something closer to that area eventually.
“Now with the age that I’m at wanting to have children, it kind of makes things really difficult,” she says.
She’s also realizing that doing everything at once might not be possible.
“I’ve decided that if I can have children soon then I’m going to focus on that and go back to the career building later."
The unstable job market is also a factor. “I don’t really want to throw myself into something new and then be stuck,” she says.
In Gershuny’s case, she was also on temporary contracts (until recently) every summer for three years while she was a student. Her contracts ranged from one week to three months.
She now has a permanent job with the same organization, which factors to her plans to have a family shortly. “I think if I didn’t have a permanent position it would be really difficult to make that decision."
BEYOND THE PICKET WHITE FENCE
Jessica Lyn O’Reilly, an English teacher in Sarnia, Ont., says she doesn’t see how kids would work for her and her husband at the moment, but eventually, the couple will talk about having kids.
After spending years bouncing between temporary contracts in jobs not related to her field, she’s finally found a part-time position that utilizes her degrees.
“I definitely feel really fortunate knowing that many of the people who I went to school with aren’t working or they are working in something completely unrelated just to pay the bills,” she says.
The 27-year-old is also enrolled in a masters of education program and is hoping the combination of degrees she has collected will help her secure something full-time in the future.
And as for having kids, O’Reilly says trying to fit them into her current schedule wouldn't work. “It wouldn't be in my best interest to leave the academy and sort of lose all of the momentum that I’ve been gaining as I study.”
O’Reilly recalls speaking at a conference for women who were both mothers and academics.
“They said there’s no real way to reconcile the two tensions between needing to be a full-time academic and needing to be a full-time mom so they ended up doing one or both things poorly. That tells me that there’s really no best way to go about doing it.”
She’s decided, at least for now, to prioritize her career. Her and her 27-year-old husband have agreed to put off having children and will reopen the discussion when she's 30, when they hope to be more financially and professionally established.
“I can live with that and so can my husband,” she says.
CHANGE STARTS AT HOME
Meanwhile, Prachi Jain, a 25-year-old accountant, has a permanent position at a big financial firm in Toronto. But, like Gershuny and O’Reilly, she agrees it can be challenging to try and fit everything into the same time window.
“You only have a certain number of years to be what you want to be. Life will be a lot more hectic later and now is the time to get experience and knowledge,” she says.
Jain sometimes works long hours and weekends at her firm, but doesn’t want to do that once she has kids. She’s planning for two or three within the next five years and anticipates making some adjustments.
Although she wouldn’t rule out a position in management, she thinks it would be difficult to balance those intense duties with home and family life.
“You wouldn’t expect a husband to stay home with the kids,” she says.
Dhawan says the current conflict between building a career and raising a family is also a big part of the reason many women don’t make it into management positions. She believes it’s also not just a problem for young women.
“Nothing is really going to change until we have a shift in gender roles at home, until men get more engaged in this issue,” says Dhawan.
WHAT WATER COOLER TALK SHOULD BE ABOUT
Dhawan believes it’s important to look at the trend as part of a larger picture and think about designing structures in the workplace that allow both men and women to thrive. If not, companies and organizations will end up losing some of their most talented workers.
“I think we need to shift our language in today’s leading global companies around this topic,” she says. “It often gets positioned as a human resources and diversity challenge, but I actually think that it’s an innovation and leadership challenge and it’s a crisis.”
This feature was produced by May Warren, a student in Ryerson University's School of Journalism, in partnership with The Huffington Post Canada.
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