Graduates, You Can Have It All (USA TODAY)

Below is a copy of my most recent USA Today column, from last Thursday. I graduated from college nine years ago this week. I think this is the kind of graduation advice I would have liked to get.

Graduates, You Can Have It All

As Millennials increasingly demand a work-life balance, they might just teach the other generations a thing or two.

By Laura Vanderkam
Complaining about young people is an old tradition, but folks graduating from college these days inspire a particular incredulousness among middle-aged sorts. The Canadian news media have been howling lately over a study finding that most students expect to be promoted in 18 months (with a 63% rise in pay in five years, naturally). Here in the U.S., Fortune has floated the word “entitled” to describe the generation often called Millennials, marveling over a willingness to send e-mails to company presidents from Day One.

Yes, despite the lousy economy, new grads are nothing if not confident. But you could almost see eyebrows rise when Accenture released a survey earlier this year finding that 94% of employed women ages 22-35 expect to achieve a balance between rewarding careers and fulfilling personal lives. Talk about “cocky,” as one writer put it. If society has been banging its collective head against the wall over this issue for decades, why do young people think they’ll be different? On the blogs, comments warned of a rude awakening.

But there’s another story to consider this mortarboard season, which is that maybe young women and men have it exactly right. With their famed information gathering prowess, perhaps Millennials just see the world as it really is: that despite an ongoing narrative of a time crunch, we have a lot more time than we think. There is plenty of time for, if not everything, anything that really matters.

Rethinking work

Certainly, people born after about 1977 (a cohort that, incidentally, includes me) view the professional world differently from their predecessors. For starters, many aren’t interested in long, cubicle-bound hours.

But that doesn’t mean young people are slackers. Though Baby Boomers may grouse about their 60-hour weeks (Harvard Business Review once trumpeted the “dangerous allure of the 70-hour workweek”), they usually aren’t working them, a tidbit I discovered when hunting through time-use research conducted by various universities and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In particular, University of Maryland sociologist John Robinson has compared people’s estimated workweeks with the hours clocked in time diaries. The finding? The more hours people claim to work, the more inaccurate they are. You can guess in which direction. Almost no one claiming an 80-hour workweek is underestimating. Indeed, these days, people claiming to work 70, 80 or more hours per week average fewer than 60 — when you subtract the exaggeration.

Young workers find this attitude, for lack of a better word, stupid. If someone’s not willing to take two-hour lunch breaks and then announce that he stayed at the office until 8 p.m., that isn’t slacking. It’s refreshing. Because what’s the point? Millennials understand that there’s a good chance your employer won’t be around in 10 years, and if it is, you won’t be working for it, no matter how much face time you clock.

But this realism isn’t just refreshing, it’s liberating — because if even the most demanding jobs largely do not require sweatshop hours, that leaves ample time for the fulfilling personal lives Millennials assume they’ll have.

You can accomplish a lot in this downtime. Consider Ironman triathlons, hellish endurance events involving 2.4-mile swims, 112-mile bike rides and 26.2-mile runs. People who’ve done them report that training requires a long-term commitment of about 15 hours per week. A mere marathon, I can attest after running 26.2 miles in Big Sur in late April, takes seven to eight. Serious volunteer commitments don’t take much time, either. Just two hours per week will launch you into the top 10% of citizens. Perhaps Millennials — long mocked for their “overscheduled” childhoods — just have a better grasp than other generations on how much time fulfilling personal lives actually take.

What about a family?

Of course, getting to the gym (or the food bank) is one thing. The biggest personal commitment people take on is to raise a family, and this is where pundits expect Millennials’ optimism to smack into the brick wall of real life.

Certainly, society has miles to go toward being supportive of families. But if being a good parent means, in part, investing hours in your kids, Millennials have a good reason to believe they will be different — because they already are. According to a 2009 Families and Work Institute report, not only do twentysomething moms of young kids spend more time each workday with their children than moms did 30 years ago, twentysomething dads log more hours with their kids than thirty- and fortysomething moms do today.

This raises the question: How did this happen? Did young parents manufacture time? While Millennials can thwart corporate hierarchies, they don’t (yet?) have this ability. But generational confidence has an upside. It turns out that when you stop complaining that you don’t have time for a career and a personal life and actually, you know, focus on working and building a personal life, these old notions that you can’t have it all are just that: old notions based on a perception of time that isn’t accurate now, and perhaps never was. Maybe that’s cockiness. Maybe that’s entitlement. But for anyone embarking on this adventure of building a life, I’d say it’s a thrilling discovery all the same.

Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, out today, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.

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