Recession Depression

You can't always get what you want. Especially in a recession.

Unfortunately, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, network television correspondents on a nationwide book tour and media blitz, haven't gotten the memo. In their book, Womenomics, Kay and Shipman tell women that all they need to do to fulfill their work-life balance dreams is, well, ask. Want to work three days a week instead of five? Just ask. Want to work from home? Just ask. Need to walk your dog every day at 5:15? Heck, march right into you boss' office and tell him it's nonnegotiable!

I'm exaggerating, but only a little. Kay and Shipman do suggest you present your employer with social-scientific evidence to back up your demands. Tell him, for example, that companies with flex-time and work-from-home options are 40 percent more productive than those that hew to a strict policy of 9-to-5 "face time." Tell him that according to a Pepperdine University study, Fortune 500 corporations that regularly promote women are more profitable than those that do not. Calling these "pink profits," the authors advise, "Your company needs you more than you realize and quite possibly more than you need them."

But as the national unemployment rate inches toward the double digits, is that true?

In an aside in their introduction -- one that feels tacked on in response to the recent economic crisis -- the authors claim that the coming of this "heady new world of Womenomics," in which "professional women can finally get what we really want," will actually be hastened by the recession, not delayed. For firms looking to cut costs, "a woman's desire for flexibility and her unique management skills could be the silver lining of this economic downturn," Kay and Shipman write. "A number of employers are introducing alternative work schedules, furloughs, unpaid vacation time, and reduced schedules specifically in response to the economic situation. … They want to nip and tuck instead of slash."

But although recession-era America may look rosy to business sociologists and television personalities, most workers aren't feeling quite so empowered. The problem is that most women aren't really looking to "nip and tuck" their work hours, no matter how much they'd rather be home with their kids, caring for elderly parents, or simply attending to their own mental health. Why not? Because they can't afford to also nip and tuck their salaries, and their benefits, and their job security. If you work from home, will you be the first employee laid off during the next budget crisis? If you cut back to three days per week, will you and your kids still be eligible for the company's health plan?

These are pressing anxieties for most American women, living in the only Western nation without government-supported health care and child care. American women are already more likely than American men to work irregular hours, have multiple employers, and work jobs without employer-provided health insurance. Women are one-third more likely than men to have sub-prime mortgages. So it is an understatement to say that for working-class and even most middle-class women, Womenomics is mere wishful thinking.

But even if we assume Womenomics applies only to elite women, the theory still seems out of touch. In a Meet the Press interview with David Gregory, Kay said women in their 40s have much to learn from my generation -- Gen Y -- since we seem to instinctually value work-life balance and flexibility. "I think that women are increasingly going to find that because of that move coming from below us, really, the workplace is going to shift in our favor,” she claimed.

If my friends and acquaintances are any example, Kay and Shipman are right about the values of Gen Y: We're more egalitarian than our parents when it comes to gender roles, which means women want to work, and most men are looking forward to active, engaged fatherhood. We want jobs that make a positive social impact, and many of us -- shaped by coming of age during the optimistic 1990s -- dream of launching our own companies or becoming self-employed contractors.

What Womenomics doesn't account for is how much our expectations have shifted over the past year, as we find ourselves at the bottom of career totem poles shaken by the economic crisis. In some industries especially affected by the downturn, the panic and resignation are palpable. "I don't hate my job," one 28-year-old media professional tells me. "But I definitely would be spending less time convincing myself of that fact if there were any jobs out there that I could be looking for. Meanwhile, everyone around me is working like crazy just to keep their jobs."

A 24-year-old freelance writer says, "I've felt that the market was appreciably more competitive as newspapers and places laid off staff workers. I really never know when my invoices are going to get paid out, or if I'll even have a steady stream of work to keep me busy." This fall, the freelancer is headed to law school, leaving behind her boyfriend of two years, who is holding on for dear life to his good tech job in another city. The upside to irregular pay and a long distance relationship? "When I was on staff, I'd never have time to work out, for example, or cook dinner," the writer says, "both things I have plenty of time for now."

Of course, many women would gladly trade that extra free time for some extra cash. One 30-year-old communications professional tells me she just accepted a job for $20,000 less than she earned in her previous position, from which she was laid off several months ago. She is now taking a much more conservative approach toward work. "Several years ago I would not give a second thought to quitting a job with severely substandard conditions," she says. "But this time I was worried it would mean months of job hunting without income."

Would I love to live in the world of Womenomics? Of course. I wish all employers were enlightened enough to realize that women -- and men -- work harder and are more loyal when their personal lives are in order. But while Generation Y may have entered the work force brazen and confident, many of us are now checking our attitudes at the door, accepting that we have fewer choices than we'd like. If older professionals want to change the system, they can't depend on us to lead the way. Right now, we feel swept up in the headwinds of the recession, nervous about basic needs like job security, health coverage, and mobility.

During a crisis, the truth is that most employers aren't benevolent, and workers certainly aren't irreplaceable. The solution must go beyond each worker advocating for herself, to all of us banding together to demand support from individual firms and government. Without that support, the fruits of "Womenomics" will always be reserved for the educated, affluent, and already highly accomplished, while everyone else worries about just getting by.

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