This morning I tuned into a webinar led by one of my favorite MBA professors. She covered generational differences in the workplace within US society, specifically highlighting traits and preferences of Millennials and Generation Z. As a Millennial myself, some of our “workplace wants” she mentioned jumped out at me: flexibility, mobility, desire to make a difference. But what there wasn’t time for was a discussion about how gender influences these as well.
Immediately after graduating with a business undergraduate degree, I moved to Japan. The plan was to stay one year and return to the US with a job in international development consulting…or something like that. Days after landing in Kitakyushu, I even registered for the GRE and promptly took the test two months later at Fukuoka International School, enabling me to simultaneously apply to US graduate schools. However, one year in Japan suddenly became five, as each year provided new growth, learning, challenges, and thought-provoking opportunities. Fast forward to 2016, and, for similar reasons, I was now looking back on three years of living in Europe, as I earned two Master’s degrees and worked in the UK and Italy. Throughout this entire time, I fielded countless questions about my unorthodox lifestyle but one sticks out – and never went away: “When will you settle down?”
Implied were additional questions and the notions of, “What you’re doing isn’t really that serious. When will you get a real office job?” “How long can you possibly keep this up?” “When will you move back to the US?” “When will you get married? When will you put the energy and effort into a serious relationship?” “Will you have children *before it’s too late*?” In more casual form, “When will you settle down?” was simply a segway into asking about my dating life. Heck, when she heard about all my travels and adventures, at least the receptionist at my dentist’s office straight up asked me, “How do you even date?”…But would she have said that to a male patient?
What so many questioners – of course, many of them from well-intentioned friends and family – missed was that I had found a fulfilling intersection of flexibility, mobility, and opportunities to enact positive change, all while learning something new every single day. Assuming family and financial obligations are covered, how can anyone hit a pause button on that? I certainly didn’t have the young professional DC happy hours, basic ‘Rose All Day outings’, and Hilton points for consulting work trips across the country. Instead, I had fallen deeply and utterly in love with the world – around the world – as I etched my place in it.
Admittedly, my ultra-mobile lifestyle, criss-crossing continents and contract jobs, isn’t for everyone. Ignoring a more traditional attempt at work-life balance, I strive for work-life integration, strategizing how I can design my life so that all the individual things I want to experience can fit together like puzzle pieces. At times, this leads to incredibly long work hours for one month followed by a few weeks of doing whatever I want, wherever I want. On other days, I decide my work agenda when I wake up and scratch tasks off my to-do-list as I work at a coffee shop. I relish this autonomy along with the empowerment and variety that come with it. As a result, inside, I know I’d be disappointing myself if I took a more stable job in the US just in order to jump on Hinge and meet those “settle down” expectations of others. I, like so many other women, equate settling down with a loss of freedom and the end of my adventures.
From the outside looking in, it appears that I’m doing all of this alone and that something, or someone, is missing. That I’m incomplete, unfinished, especially as a female. Hold up. 1) Isn’t everyone a work in progress? Aren’t we all growing and developing anyway as we go through life? 2) My extended family has blossomed globally, exponentially, and organically as I’ve intertwined purpose, curiosity, and a love of people into my life story. It’s magic and meaning I can’t get from a Bumble swipe.
Amidst all of this, it comes down to prioritization and intention. What matters most to you? And in what order? What do you want out of your life? Where do you want to go, figuratively and physically? What small things can you do now to make it happen? How might you find the ability to navigate these rising waters of opportunity for women? From where I sit, the evolving journey of figuring these things out is our most important emancipation.