The Perfect Storm That Pushed Working Women to Demand Change
After years of enduring workplace harassment, low wages, minimal childcare benefits, and more, working women across generations have reached their breaking point.
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“I think I have workplace PTSD,” Quinn, 39, tells me, about the unsavory prospect of returning to the office full time. Her last job, in state government, had been stressful and unfulfilling.
“I know it’s wrong, but hanging out with my kid is more fun than working,” she adds, apologetically. In addition to keeping a tiny human alive, which I assured her is work, Quinn, who is using a pseudonym to protect her privacy, volunteers for racial justice causes. Still, she can’t fully shake the notion that as a feminist, she should have a job job.
But what does this mean? Stability in “prestige” professions like politics, publishing, journalism, academia, the arts—has crumbled, a major shift from what millennial women like Quinn and Gen-Xers had grown up expecting. We thought that if we were talented and went to the right college and worked hard enough, we’d “make it” in these rarefied fields. Sarah Jaffe, a labor journalist, former DAME columnist, and author of Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone, recalls growing up with just this expectation as a high-schooler in the 1990s. Born in 1980, she straddles the line between Gen X and older millennials. “I feel like I was the last cohort of people thinking I’d go to college, get a decent job… That it was worth the debt.”
“Then I finished college right when the 2002 recession hit,” she continues. “Then I finished grad school in 2009 after the financial crisis and there I was, waiting tables.” In 2020, 40 percent of recent college graduates and 34.8 percent of all college graduates worked in jobs that don’t require a degree, according to the Federal Reserve of New York.
For decades, jobs across the socioeconomic spectrum have failed to provide stability and the benefits of virtual lifetime employment. We hear a lot about the manufacturing worker who found himself lost after the jobs shipped overseas, but we hear less about the middle-aged executive assistant who lost her job in the recession of 2002, or the financial crisis of 2008, and had to find new work to support herself, kids, or parents. Or the grad student who, like Jaffe, had to take jobs having nothing to do with her expensive education. And, of course, there are the added frustrations of navigating all of this as women, from pervasive sexism and sexual harassment to the virtually impossible task of juggling work and family.
Fifty years of thwarted expectations for women in the workplace don’t seem like much cause for optimism. But there are signs of hope and empowerment, not in work, as second-wave feminism told us, but in crafting a healthier and more fulfilling relationship to work. The rise of more flexible digital work—a long-term trend that became blindingly obvious during the pandemic—inherently gives employees more control of how they choose to live.
Successful unionization efforts at America’s biggest—and most exploitative—employers, like Amazon and Starbucks, are also shining lights in the evolution of more humane work. This changing view of work may unify generations of women, who each had different approaches, restrictions, and expectations of what work and working should be. Now, Gen-Xers, millennials, and Gen Z could see it as a shared cause.
“All the shit we were told to expect didn’t come to fruition, and now we’re fighting back, Jaffe says.”
Gen X women were the first to enter the workplace after the boomer revolution in gender roles. As it turned out, talk of more evolved, equitable gender norms did not create a panacea in the American workplace.
“I was surprised starting out very early in my working life that even for my generation, which came after a lot of breakthroughs for women entering the workforce, that it was still so difficult for women,” says 52-year-old Lynn Parramore. Over the course of a successful career in academia, journalism, and at economic think tanks, Parramore says that she was consistently undermined, watching less qualified men blithely surge ahead.
Sexual harassment was rampant. “I didn’t even know what to call it when I started,” she tells me. “It’s difficult because more men than I had ever thought, including men who defined themselves as feminists, still treated women as second-rate. It didn’t even seem conscious. In their minds, there was nothing wrong.” If Gen-Xers were surprised by sexism and harassment in the professional sphere, imagine how millennials felt when they found more of the same. Women born in the 1980s and early 1990s grew up in a post–Anita Hill world, when the reigning narrative seemed to be that feminist kill-joys had gone too far, even. In 2012, Kristen Gwynne, now 32, was a journalism student at NYU when she got an internship, and then a full-time job, as a reporter at a progressive web magazine.
It was a dream job for a journalist at the very start of her career. But soon, her boss, a male boomer, allegedly began making explicit comments, allegedly showing her dirty photographs, and allegedly retaliating when she didn’t want to spend social time with him.
Sick of the harassment, she quit after two years, and tried her luck as a freelance journalist. Despite getting bylines in major publications, she felt the trade-off between the amount of work she put in and the award she got back—paltry, unlivable fees—wasn’t worth it. She was turned off by the field and its twisted power dynamics—gender-based and economic. Now she is writing a memoir about the opioid crisis.
During the pandemic, Parramore juggled work while taking care of her mother, who is about to celebrate her 90th birthday. Parramore is grateful that she’s at a point in her career where she has the flexibility to be there for her mother. Still, she bristles at the clear double standard. “If a man did that, it would be seen as a heroic sacrifice,” she observes. “With me, it’s just expected.”
Parramore believes that if she’d chosen to get married and have kids, attaining her professional goals, which include both academic accomplishments and journalism and research on inequality and other progressive causes, would have been impossible. “A marriage would have been another full-time job, given the attitudes of Gen X men,” she says. “And our society does not allow for motherhood to be a pleasant experience without full financial security.”
“The U.S. is an outlier in the world,” says Parramore. “We expect women to perform this physical and emotional labor, in a society that doesn’t value or aid it. I’ve decided to be generative in other ways, to give back in other ways.”
The ‘quiet’ revolution
As a labor reporter, Jaffe has been inundated with requests for interviews about “quiet quitting” which have, of course, spawned breathless hand-wringing about the apparent nationwide embrace of slackerdom. Quiet quitting is the idea that employees are doing the bare minimum at work to avoid getting fired.
On Real Time With Bill Maher September 9, Maher and guest Scott Galloway, author of Adrift: America in 100 Charts, fumed that young people were sabotaging themselves by not giving their life over to their careers. “The U.S. is a fabulous country if one is rich, but an ugly and rapacious place if one is poor,” Galloway said, after issuing the dire warning that if you can do your job from anywhere, then anywhere could end up in Bangalore, with you shit out of luck and job. What the best-selling writer Galloway and television pundit Maher failed to appreciate is that employers have spent decades spitting on the contract that hard work generates professional success and stability.
“It’s not about not doing your job. It’s about not being willing to do the extras that don’t even lead to better work,” Jaffe says. “It’s not answering when the boss emails you at midnight, drunk, to yell at you about something. People are less willing to do that and it’s a very good thing!” (Full disclosure: Jaffe and I worked for the same boss in roughly the same role and I can confirm her account.) It’s actually a win-win for everyone. “You’re more productive when you set the pace of your work,” says Jaffe.
Jaffe says that this shift must be communal, not individual. “If you don’t pick up the phone at midnight, the boss will find a way to get rid of you and find someone who does,” she observes. “But he can’t fire everyone. That’s what a union is for.”
‘Balance really is everything’
Chiara Hertsgaard is a senior in high school. At 17, her dream is to work in the music industry. She’s not the slacker of Bill Maher’s imagination, but rather plans to work hard to build a meaningful career.
At the same time, she is fully aware of the importance of balancing work and life. “I’ve learned even as I go through high school how immensely important it is to have time to yourself versus time working,” she says. “I want to work hard, and I think it is important to work enough during the week to not lose motivation and to keep up a good work ethic, but also important to have time to take care of yourself, and prioritize physical and mental health, as well as time with friends and family,” she says. “Balance really is everything.”
Hertsgaard’s hope for a better, more balanced workplace is not just about the quality of her own professional life. She emphasizes that more must be done to improve work for everyone, a pro-social perspective that squares with Jaffe’s point that only communal approaches to a better workplace can empower everyone.
“I hope that my generation can keep redefining what workplaces look like for women,” Hertsgaard says. She notes that she’s grateful for what working women in earlier generations accomplished, but more must be done. “While we continue to do a wonderful job of amplifying women’s voices and making sure that they are safe in places of work, we need to do even better, especially when it comes to women of color.”
Hertsgaard notes that working every waking moment doesn’t look like success to her.
“I want to normalize working a little less,” she says. “I think in a lot of previous generations it was seen that to be ‘successful’ you had to work unbelievably hard. I think that while this is true to an extent, we should also all be prioritizing personal time much more than we are right now.”
“If I am happy and if I am stable, I am successful. Under those terms, it is a huge priority of mine. But if a successful career means a job that is seen as impressive by others, that is less of a priority for me.”
While there seems to be a shift among women poised to enter the workplace for the first time, Jaffe observes that we should ensure generation-based analyses are not reductive.
“Young people are growing up with a different experience of work,” she says. “A job at a factory for 40 years is not a thing. While younger people are having their expectations undercut, older people might also have shittier experiences now than they used to.”
“Capitalism is different for me than for younger people, and it’s certainly different than it was for my mother. But a lot of older people are also saying, ‘Screw this.’ In her reporting she’s found that many of the ringleaders of unionization efforts are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. “They say, ‘Enough bullshit’ and fight for better conditions for everyone.”
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