• Bemused By The New Men

    This is an edited version of a column that appeared in the Sunday Times www.sundaytimes.co.uk - it has started an interesting debate on Twitter and it emerged out of many conversations with younger men about how they can succeed at work and be the kind of fathers they want to be: increasingly they are running up against difficulties when trying to negotiate more family-friendly lives with their male bosses and are asking senior women who have been through the work/life blance mill for advice... what do you think?

     

    At the Everywoman awards ceremony for female entrepreneurs last week, I was sitting next to a female captain of industry. As we watched the winners trot up to the podium, collecting their gongs, each one's story more impressive than the last, she gave a hollow laugh. "It's ironic," she said, "but these days the employees I am having the most agonised work-life balance chats with aren't the women but the younger men. "These twentysomething blokes, she went on, are desperate to take their children to school and even collect them occasionally. Many have high-achieving wives who expect them to shoulder their share of the domestic burden and they are keen to take up paternity leave and flexible working.The trouble, she said with a wry smile, is the consternation this is causing among the more senior chaps. "One of the management team asked me rather plaintively last week why none of the younger blokes will go out for a drink with him after work. He'd been rather hurt," she said, asking why these younger men seemed a different species.

    This generation gap between older and younger men is an increasingly yawning chasm. Baby-boomer bosses have (mostly) now understood that in order to hang on to talented female staff in the mummy years they may have to throw them the bone of flexible working (a sneaky day at home, say, or days when they leave early and take up the email challenge once their offspring are asleep). Indeed, the hullabaloo around women in the boardroom and research showing that gender-balanced teams lead to better business outcomes are making even the most macho managers see the wisdom of hanging on to their women.

    Yet while legislation and a cultural shift have focused attention on work-life balance issues for women, for men it is still the dark ages. New research into attitudes in generation Y (the so-called millennials, because they came of age around 2000) shows how male attitudes are changing. The Pew Research Centre found that young men aged 18-34 are less career-minded than young women (66% of females aged 18-34 rate their career as one of the most important things in their lives, but just 59% of young men; a stark contrast with 1997, when the figures were the other way round). Research by the Centre for Talent Innovation also finds that young men are just as keen to spend time with their families as young women.

    The evidence of this generational shift is all around. On Twitter last week a young father wrote: "16 days away . . . Kid at home, growing. Torture . . . I mean grown-ups out there with kids . . . How do you do this?" That is traditionally mummy territory; I remember weeping in the cab as I went off on my first foreign trip when my daughter was young. It is a sign of growing gender equality that young men now feel able to vocalise those feelings too. It's of a piece with them being expected to be at the birth, to change nappies, to be handy with a bottle and generally to be just as much of a hands-on parent as the mother. The men I meet rhapsodise, worry and talk about their kids as much as any mother. These new domestic dads are even being recognised by companies such as Procter & Gamble: last week The Wall Street Journal reported a new rash of male-oriented mops and laundry products. Yet while older men increasingly cut women some slack when it comes to parenthood and domestic responsibilities, they are far less forgiving or likely to offer such flexi-deals to younger men. This attitude clash between the young man and the old is the new front line in the work-life wars and causing just as much heartache. A young dad I know who works in advertising told me how he was asked by his boss to meet an important client on a Saturday. He declined, explaining his wife was away on business and he was in sole charge of his three children. His boss was appalled and questioned his commitment. This is far from a lone incident. A banker I know who had the temerity to take two weeks of paternity leave ran the gauntlet of endless jokes about whether he had finished breastfeeding when he returned to the office (his colleagues left breast pads on his desk). Another friend who turned down an assignment, explaining to his boss that he didn't want to have to work late because he wanted to see his kids, was asked: "Why would you want to do that?"

    The truth is that a long-hours macho culture is still alive and kicking in business and in professional life. Older men who sacrificed school concerts, parents' evenings and bedtimes on the altar of their careers, serving their families by climbing as high and as fast as they could, are understandably hostile to younger men who have different priorities. When a new father says to his boss "I don't want that assignment" or "I can't do that because of my kids" he is, in essence, saying, "I am not like you; I do not want to be like you." That is never an easy conversation to have, but it is made well nigh impossible when the man in question is your boss and had, until that point anyway, seen you as a future member of the management classes.

    No wonder angst-ridden young fathers are buttonholing high-flying working mothers such as my lunch companion to ask for tips. And how ironic that it is now far easier to be a woman negotiating all of this than it is to be a man. There is a solution, however. I recently heard a fascinating speech by a woman who works for Ernst & Young, the accountancy. She described how it now let all its employees work flexibly — a boon to those with elderly parents, hobbies or a volunteering passion as well as those with parental responsibilities. Essentially, so long as clients' needs are met, everyone in the firm can work where and how they please. So far, productivity is up and the firm has saved a fortune in office space, overheads and transport. Technology means the bosses can track their employees' work rate and movements and the employees' autonomy over their work-life balance has led to far greater workforce satisfaction and retention rates.

    As the female entrepreneurs accepted their prizes last week, my new friend and I laughed at how our own struggles to balance work and family were being repeated and our solutions sought by men. I suppose that's progress. But it's no wonder the Mad Men old guard — used to the camaraderie of a blokey culture of "work hard, play hard, never get home till after bedtime" — are so bemused by the new men.

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