‘Lean in’? For Millennials, the question is what are we leaning toward

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In the public debate raging over Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book Lean In, we should pay special attention to the voices of young people–women and men of different backgrounds.

This week alone, I have heard from dozens of Millennials in their 20s and 30s, all from working class and middle class families. We know that “leaning in” to careers comes at a cost: it requires us to “lean on” other people for duties like cleaning and childcare. The people we lean on are often from the same underprivileged communities that some of us come from. In a relentless work culture for all of us, from domestic workers to young professionals, we are starting to ask ourselves a critical question missing from the debate: what are we all “leaning” towards?

It took until my thirties for me to answer that question. I was born into a South Asian family where women have played the role of wives, mothers, and caregivers for generations. My mother fought hard against cultural norms and economic obstacles so that I could be the first to pursue a path outside the home and in Sandberg’s words, “lean in” to my career.

I went on to top tier universities, where I became connected to a whole new set of women pursuing powerful professions. As a Stanford undergrad, I found that the hardest-working women were the ones who regularly gathered in my dorm room. We hatched dreams to become lawyers, scholars, and doctors, naming ourselves “the Pocket.”

If you asked us why we were working so hard, we did not say we were working to “have it all”–a high-powered career and children. Rather, we wanted to make meaningful change in the world. We wanted a balanced life where we could take good care of our children, family, friends, and our own health. We were determined to stay true to these commitments as we entered traditionally male-dominated jobs in law offices, universities, government and politics.

Now, ten years after graduation, we are in our early thirties and navigating our way. Most of us are starting demanding new jobs, some are finishing graduate studies; one had an unexpected pregnancy while in medical school. All of us struggled to survive a near-recession. Each of us has accrued a staggering amount of student debt. In fact, total student debt has tripled over the past eight years, now standing at an unthinkable $966 billion in the fourth quarter of last year.

To meet that debt, we are entering professions that expect us to work at all hours in what Anne-Marie Slaughter calls “time macho.” Our work cultures demands not 40-hour but 70-80-hour work weeks, even in jobs that do not offer Wall Street salaries. Several of us were lucky to find partners who share our egalitarian values, but as Evergreen State College professor Stephanie Coontz noted in The New York Times, none of us is in a labor market that allows us to practice those values.

As for starting a family, the latest research in fertility tells us that time is running out fast: we should start a family before 35 if we want to have biological children without health risks. But if we do have children, we jeopardize our prospects for long-term career advancement in workplaces that do not provide flexible hours, adequate parental leave, on-site or subsidized daycare, or a formal way to slow down, work from home or work part-time, and still pursue a long-term track for advancement. In sum, we have discovered that success has earned us careers that can threaten our health and compromise our core commitments.

“It might be tough for us,” said Jessica Jenkins, an immigration lawyer and college classmate. “But things are way harder for my clients. Most are mothers working inflexible hours without sick pay, if they’re able to work at all. A staggering number endure domestic violence. Too many are marginalized because of race, sexual orientation, immigration status, education, or class. I guess this is why I’m frustrated that the media thinks that the most urgent item on the feminist agenda is a book by a corporate executive.”

We can “lean in” all we want, but no amount of personal ambition can change what systemic economic and social policies could do for women and men in our generation. The system is stacked against not just corporate women, but people of all classes and professions. We need leaders who will revolutionize work-life policies, innovate new work cultures, and deepen the discourse on what constitutes success.

Questioning what we’re “leaning” towards is even more essential in a cultural moment when many of our most prominent female role models are corporate executives.

“I don’t want to ‘lean in’ if it means it’s only for my own gain,” Jenkins said. “I don’t want power and prestige if it means I am perpetuating the inequality around me. As far as I’m concerned, my struggle is inextricably linked with others.”

To be sure, I know many young women who still want to make partner at a law firm or climb the corporate ladder. These women ought to have the freedom to pursue those paths. But we should not pretend that ambition alone will guarantee their success, especially if success includes more than a corner office. Nor should we assume that climbing the highest rungs of our professions automatically breaks down barriers for all women.

In this critical moment, when public discussion could influence employers and policymakers, it’s time for Millennials to join the debate and redefine what success means to us.

As for “the Pocket,” we are still working hard to live healthy, balanced, financially secure, and meaningful lives. We are not unhappy. We never wanted to “have it all” for ourselves. We wanted to have enough for everyone. And that is what we’re leaning toward.

Valarie Kaur is an award-winning filmmaker, civil rights advocate, and interfaith leader. She is Senior Fellow at Auburn Seminary, where she founded Groundswell to help mobilize faith communities in social action. Kaur studied religion and law at Stanford University, Harvard Divinity School, and Yale Law School, where she founded the Yale Visual Law Project.  You can find her at her blog and on Twitter.

Valarie was a guest for host Melissa Harris-Perry’s Saturday discussion on this topic. See the first part of it above, and the rest on MHPshow.com.

'Lean in'? For Millennials, the question is what are we leaning toward

Updated