My own mother was pretty clear about the whole parenting thing: while she loved us enough, if she’d felt she had a choice, it wouldn’t have included being a mother. She was accepted to college, but lacking the support of her family, got engaged before she graduated high school. She really came into her own once her three sons were out of the house. She became active politically, learning website creation in her 60s, started activism about homelessness, and became a wonderful gadfly for her local city council well into her 80s.
I’ve been thinking a lot about her since her death two years ago as I read the changes we see among women in succeeding generations since the 1950s. Starting with the Baby Boomers, each generation of women has chosen to postpone having children a few years later. And more women and their partners are choosing child free lives. A small (1,000 participant) study of GenZ women for a real estate publication found that 27% of them don’t want to have kids and another 38% are undecided. 89% of GenZ women say they value the flexibility of not having children.
This is just one aspect of the changing social environment for women of child-bearing age, all of which have significant potential implications for healthcare and employment. In 2018 the number of babies born in the USA fell to its lowest level in 32 years. For my mother, marriage and having babies was about the only acceptable life path available to her, but we have seen increasingly varied options for women in work, in relationships, in choices for sexual partners, and in how work fits into their lives.
As Elizabeth Morgan, associate professor of psychology at Springfield College, notes “Fifty years ago, you couldn’t have a life if you didn’t marry a man and settle down because he needed to provide for you.” This has corresponded to a dramatic change in sexual fluidity among women in only 8 years: from 77% reporting exclusive heterosexuality in 2011 to 65% reporting only being attracted to men in 2019. The rising acceptance of alternative gender and sexual identities has been noted as one of the most significant social changes in the last century. For GenZ it is also being accompanied by a greater acceptance of more diverse environments around race, ethnicity, country and language of origin, and disability status.
At the same time, GenZ women are observing the toll that “having it all” is having on the mental, physical, and social health of prior generations. While more women are participating in the workforce than ever before, their choices about what they buy and how they shop are different. A marketing advice company (responsemedia.com) asserts that GenZ moms consider “whether or not the item makes them feel good about themselves, receives positive online reviews, helps them stand out, or is based on a recommendation from others they know.” The ethical and environmental effects of their choices are more real and visible to them.
A few years ago a dear colleague and brilliant research scientist, Jennifer Deal, discovered that the differences between generations were way over-hyped. In fact, what people valued was quite similar across age groups. However, the identities available to us (the ones we don’t feel we have to cover) shape our behavior and life choices.
One of the things I had to learn as a parent in a blended family was to make sure I knew whom I was talking with. My life partner is both mother and wife, and I get different reactions depending on which of those identities she inhabits in the moment. If I’m talking about family finances, we are having a conversation as husband and wife. If I have a concern about one of our daughters who is her biological offspring, then she will hear that as the child’s mother, not as my wife. As leaders in healthcare organizations, we must recognize that we live in a time of multiple, sometimes contradictory, identities, and that we don’t automatically know how our colleagues are hearing what we hope to communicate.
GenZ is neither better nor worse than the Millennials, Xers, Boomers, Greats, etc., but they deserve to be heard as they navigate today’s complex and chaotic world. Listening skills continue to be the most important leadership capability, but they require that we are listening to each other with sensitivity to the whole context. When it comes to gender and race and more, history is not in the past. The whole of the social world is present in our daily interactions and the casual conversations of our work. Some tender regard for the challenges of each other and willingness to journey together is our shared mandate.
Douglas Riddle, PhD, DMin.
The Carol Emmott Foundation