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The New 'Slacker' Millennial Guy

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In the past, men demonstrated their manliness at work by mooning the trading floor (to quote one conversation I had recently) or pounding their chests à la Alpha-Ape (to quote someone I interviewed a few years back). "Come back with your shield or on it," a partner used to joke in the 1980s whenever someone in my husband's BigLaw firm went to court. Extreme schedules remain a key metric of manliness. "He's a real man; he works 90-hour weeks. He's a slacker; he works 50 hours a week," commented a Silicon Valley engineer.

And men are paid handsomely for putting in such hours. An important new study by Youngjoo Cha and Kim A. Weeden reports that the wage premium for "overwork" -- working more than 50 hours a week -- has risen sharply. In 1979, there was actually a wage penalty for overwork; but this turned into a wage premium after the mid-1990s. Because men tend to overwork more than women, the rising overwork premium raised men's wages more than women's, and has effectively erased the advantage women gained by increasing their higher education levels.

All this helps explain why, according to one survey, 75 percent of male executives are married to homemakers. It's simply not possible to work 90 hours a week and see to your own basic needs -- much less support someone else's career. It works the other way, too: with only one salary to rely on, those husbands need all the wage premium they can get. But there's an impact of these kinds of arrangements -- he works all of the time, she does all the housework -- on organizations. A recent study reported that male managers in such marriages found organizations with egalitarian gender attitudes less appealing and were more likely to give women low job evaluations.

This mindset, created by the peculiar demography of upper-level management, is increasingly out of sync with most of the workforce. Younger men increasingly want schedules that work around family needs -- just as women have been demanding for years.

While the media, consumed with the idea of "mommy wars" and "queen bees," has largely missed the tug of war that has emerged among men, sociologists have been busy uncovering the change. Statements like that of the Silicon Valley engineer who expressed resentment at his manager's demands by saying, "[he] doesn't have two kids and a wife, he has people that live in his house, that's basically what he has," as reported by Marianne Cooper, are increasingly common among younger men. "It's akin to winning a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie," observed a law firm associate, rejecting law firm partnership as a goal.

This creates a big gap between older men and their protégés. Katherine Kellogg, in her important study, found that the brotherhood of surgeons was dominated by Iron Men who see themselves as "the biggest, baddest SOBs around, beating up on the meddies [medical residents] and beating upon radiologists." Iron Men live for the operating room, dismiss post-op care as boring, scorn rest ("I am hardcore and I need no sleep!"), and brag that a surgical residency program has a 110 percent divorce rate ("Guys would come in married, get divorced, get remarried, and get divorced again").

What's intriguing is that many younger men won't play the game. Kellogg studied four Boston hospitals' response to a new accreditation requirement that surgical residents be limited to 80 hours a week, down from the traditional 120-hour schedule.

Women supported the new 80-hour rule -- no surprise -- but so did many Millennial men. Kellogg found three main groups of such men:

One group, which she termed "patient-centered men," wanted to spend more time listening to patients. This highlights the point, too often forgotten, that 24/7 work ethic often compromises work outcomes -- a finding reported in a variety of industries, including Silicon Valley and consulting. Another group rejected Iron Men's work-all-the-time ideals. "You want to get home to see your kids. You want to see your kids grow up," said one. For a third group, the issue was not work-family balance but manliness itself. They found the Iron Men's macho displays off-putting and inconsistent with their image of what it took to be an egalitarian man, a self-image that was important to them. In one hospital, all these groups banded together and changed residents' schedules to observe the 80-hour a week rule.

In this, Millennial men are joining another group of longstanding skeptics: blue-collar men. While elite men "often view ambition, dynamism, a strong work ethic, and competitiveness as doubly sacred because they signal both moral and socioeconomic worth," as Michèle Lamont has written, blue-collar guys disagree. To them, this looks more like selfishness. Lamont's 2000 study quotes a bank supply salesman: "A person that is totally ambitious and driven never sees anything except the spot they are aiming at." An electronics technician agreed, criticizing people who are "so self-assured, so self-intense that they don't really care about anyone else.... It's me, me, me, me, me."

This cross-class disagreement also emerges clearly in Naomi Gerstell and Carla Shows's study contrasting emergency medical technicians with physicians. The doctors typically devoted their lives to work and had wives dissatisfied by their inattention to family life. The EMTs also worked longer hours than their wives but were involved in everyday fathering in ways doctors were not, picking kids up from day care or school and staying home when they were sick. EMTs used shift swaps to facilitate child care. Many worked overtime only after consultation with their wives, who vetoed it when they felt the work would interfere with family needs. Others refused overtime completely. "I will totally refuse the overtime. Family comes first for me," said one.

These EMTs sound a lot like the Millennial surgeons. Both groups of men are reinventing the meanings and the metaphors of work. The surgeons who aligned against the Iron Men abandoned the image of staff surgeon as hierarchical warlord, replacing it with an image of a team coach. "They referred to chiefs as 'coaches' rather than 'commanders,' to [senior residents] as 'team members' rather than 'wingmen...' and to interns as 'rookies' or 'good prioritizers' rather than as 'beasts of burden.'"

Millennial men are beginning to do what women have done for decades: to work as consultants or start their own businesses that give them the flexibility for better work-family balance. A forthcoming study of New Models of Legal Practice by the Center for WorkLife Law (which I direct) documents lawyers in their prime who left large, prestigious law firms so they could practice law in ways that allow them to be more involved in children's lives. When he started his own virtual law firm, said a former in-house lawyer, "I had a two-year old and a baby and I definitely wanted to be at home and spend time with my kids and my wife and I saw there was an opportunity." Being able to work at home, for him, was "a big benefit." Big Law refugees signal the growing generational divide among elite men about what it means to put family first, and what it means to be a man.

Like blue-collar guys, these younger professional men have different understandings of ambition and different ideals of fatherhood. If they're unable to change their organizations to allow time for family life, like the young surgeons were, they will leave. (Big Law, take note.)

Increasingly, managing fatherhood involves difficult conversations about what it means to be a good father, an ideal worker, and a "real" man. Today, managing diversity is not limited to women, LGBTQ individuals, or people of color. Diversity also means managing men who aren't like you -- and don't want to be.

Joan C. Williams is distinguished professor of law at the University of California, Hastings, and founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law.

This post first appeared on the Harvard Business Review.