Wharton’s Stew Friedman talks about his book, Baby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family, which has been re-released for its 10th anniversary with a provocative new preface. This evidence-based book examines the changing attitudes millennials and younger generations have about raising children in a society that makes it increasingly difficult to do so. Friedman is also author of the book Parents Who Lead and he is CEO of Total Leadership.

Read an edited version of the transcript below.


Unraveling Why Millennials Are Less Interested in Having Kids

Angie Basiouny: Stew Friedman is the author of Baby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family, published by Wharton School Press. It’s a really interesting look at how our competitive, demanding work culture in the United States is leading more and more young people to question whether they want to become parents or have families. Dr. Friedman is an organizational psychologist. He joined the Wharton staff in 1984, and in the early 1990s set up both the Wharton Leadership Program and the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project. He’s a sought-after expert on the topic of leadership and the whole person, and he’s won numerous awards for his teaching excellence and for his impact on management thought. He is now an emeritus practice professor of management.

Stew, thanks for joining me. We have something to celebrate today, because it is the 10th anniversary of Baby Bust. It’s been reissued to mark the occasion. Congratulations, that’s an achievement.

Stew Friedman: Thank you. I’m very glad to have this new edition and grateful to Wharton School Press for doing it.

Basiouny: This book is based on your research using Wharton graduates as your subject matter. You talked to the class of ’92, and then 20 years later, the class of 2012. You surveyed them about their perceptions and attitudes about work and family. Give us a bit of an overview and what inspired you to write this book.

Friedman: Back in the 1980s, I was doing research and practice working with organizations on leadership development, talent management, and how companies prepared and selected the next generation of senior executives. That was my dissertation at the University of Michigan. But then, in the late 1980s, I became a father and that sort of changed things for me. I realized at that moment of meeting my son for the first time that I had a new question to pursue. And that was, how am I going to contribute to making the world one in which he’s going to flourish?

I brought that question to everyone, including my Wharton students. I asked, “What are you, as future business leaders, going to do about cultivating not just the next generation of talent in your companies, but the next generation?” And that conversation led me to become a lot more active in doing research, starting to develop teaching models, and sharing knowledge about how people integrate the different parts of their lives for mutual gain. It led in 1991 to the start of the Work/Life Integration Project, which did research in the field, finding people who were good at this and identifying what helped them to find harmony among the different parts of their lives as parents, and in other aspects of their lives.

We also did large-scale survey research starting in 1992, which was the original basis for the Baby Bust study. We started tracking different classes of Wharton students, and as the project grew and aged, and as I aged, we decided 20 years after the initial study to go back to the class of 1992 and ask them a series of questions about their lives, their careers, their hopes, their dreams, their passions, their interests, their political views. We also surveyed the class of 2012, which enabled us to do a longitudinal cross-generational study, 20 years apart. So, we compared the class of 1992 when they graduated, and the class of 2012 when they graduated. We had a true cross-generational comparison. That’s the study that Baby Bust is about.

Now, 10 years after that study, I’ve had a chance to provide some new commentary on what we observed in 2013, when the book was published. The main finding, the thing that really struck me when I looked at the data comparing the class of 1992 to the class of 2012, was what men and women were saying about their interest in planning to have or adopt children. The response scale was “yes/probably/not sure/probably not/no.” About 78%, 79% of men and women said “yes” or “probably” in 1992. In 2012, that number dropped to 42%, 43%.

Basiouny: That’s really dramatic.

Friedman: I thought, “No, that can’t be. That’s just too huge a drop.” But it was true. That became the focal point for looking at what had changed when we studied the Gen Xers compared to the millennials. In the book, I describe what changed and why, and how the story is different for men and women as to why fewer young people were planning to have or adopt children.

Millennials vs. Gen X on Figuring Out Kids and Careers

Basiouny: There is a striking number of differences in the attitudes and the perceptions between the Gen Xers and the millennials. As you put in the book, there’s good news and there’s bad news. Can you highlight some of those differences?

Friedman: People are less likely to want to have children now.  The original response to the book was, “Oh, that’s just Wharton students. We can’t really generalize.” Well, it turns out that these are trends that are both national and global. I became more knowledgeable about trends in birth rates, because I had to try to learn something about what we were observing among Wharton students and alumni. It turns out these are not isolated findings among these elite business school students. These are broader findings. And there are a number of reasons that explain why men and women shifted in their interests, their willingness to want to have kids of their own. It’s not that they think any less about the importance of long-term relationships or even becoming a parent. It’s still seen as an important part of life. It’s just that fewer of them are planning to actually do it.

For men, it had to do in part with having a different attitude about what a modern father is, a different father than the one that they had, in terms of their expected role in the family. The new generation want to be more involved, more active, and to be able to fund their family’s needs.  Yet they had concerns about that. We found that young men who were carrying a high level of student debt, for example, were less likely to want to have kids because they were afraid that they couldn’t provide the support. They also anticipated greater conflict in their relationships with their partners because of their expected amount of engagement in the role of father and how that was going to conflict with their being successful in their careers.

Millennial women, on the other hand, had different reasons for their reduced interest in having children. One was greater freedom. They had a greater sense of choosing not to become a mother, compared to the Gen Xers before them. The social pressures to become a mother were not as great as before. They also were conflicted about their role in society. More women who felt that it was important for them to be contributing to social good through their work saw a conflict between that role and their ability to have the time and attention that they wanted for children.

Those are just some of the ways in which men and women shifted over the course of those two generations.

Basiouny: It’s almost like the Gen X cohort had these rose-colored glasses on. The idea that they could achieve it, they could do it all. And the millennials went into it with their eyes wide open. You mentioned in the book, they’re concerned about student debt. They’re concerned about climate change. They’re concerned about social injustice. It reminded me of the Betty Friedan quote, “You can have it all, just not at the same time.” It felt like the millennials got that message, so they were scaling back their expectations of what their life might be like and understanding that perhaps these are choices now that they have to make. Would you say that’s an accurate depiction of the differences?

Friedman: Yes. One of the fascinating observations comparing those two generations is that men seemed in their attitudes to become more egalitarian in terms of how two-career relationships were going to work. Men were going to be more active at home and more equally distributing domestic responsibilities.

However, to your point, women seem to have learned from the generation prior to them some hard lessons that perhaps the Gen Xers didn’t quite envision with their more optimistic view about anything being possible. Millennial women were less likely to have the view that relationships at home would be egalitarian than their forebearers. They saw it as necessary to make sacrifices, more so than the people 20 years prior to them.

The result, though, is that the attitudes about egalitarian relationships, two-career relationships, and how they were going to work, converged. Men and women are more on the same page now than they were in the past. And there’s a note of optimism, I think, inherent in that observation.

Basiouny: What was also striking was just how much the younger men you surveyed were vocal about their concerns, about their worries. Yes, they see women’s careers as being equal to theirs. They see their role in fatherhood as being much greater than the generations previous to them. But they were also concerned about how they were going to accomplish that. If you were to survey the attitudes of the class of 2022, which would be 10 years forward, what kind of differences do you think you might find now?

Friedman: Well, these last 10 years have been really tumultuous, of course. The trends I observed when the book first came out continue. Birth rates continue to decline in our society, and it’s a frightening prospect for the future. The pandemic produced a radical shift in how people think about the relationship between work and the rest of life. There’s a greater recognition that people have lives outside of work. There’s also a greater recognition of the need for us as a society to be investing more in education, as more people came to realize that professional educators do an enormous service to our society and need more respect and support.

There’s a greater recognition of the need to support the whole person, to help people create effective boundaries among the different parts of life. That shift has surely happened, and it’s a good thing. However, the digital revolution has created an environment in which it’s harder to focus on one thing at a time. It’s harder to focus on work, on anything, for that matter. Young people especially are ever more socially isolated and alienated. These are not only my own personal observations. There’s a lot of research supporting this. And I think that makes it harder for them to connect in ways that make them want to become parents.

And, of course, there’s climate change, which has become a much more present issue in the minds of people who are informed about what’s happening in the world. When I had a discussion on the original findings of the Baby Bust study in my MBA class on Total Leadership — an outgrowth of the Work/Life Integration Project (more on this below) — students read the study findings and then explored the impact of climate change on future business ideas. There was a heated debate that ensued: Is it moral to bring children into a world that is going to be uninhabitable? There are those kinds of concerns, on top of all the other chaotic changes that are happening in our world, that I think make it ever less likely for people to feel confident in taking up the role of being a parent.

How Can We Create a Better Society for Future Parents?

Basiouny: This book is not just a summary of your research. It’s not just a narrative. You also offer recommendations for policy and practice. What can we do to fix it? You have recommendations at the societal level, the organizational level, and the individual level. Tell us some of the ones that you feel are the most important, maybe the most doable.

Friedman: Where we have seen some change at the policy level, though not nearly fast or substantial enough, is in child care and family leave. There is no reason why the United States cannot be the world leader in providing real support for families, all kinds of families. And that starts with family medical leave and child care. We are woefully behind the rest of the world, the rest of the developed world for sure, and that’s a matter of political will. We have made some progress, but not nearly enough. The real action is at the municipal and state levels, which are more malleable. But at the federal level, there’s been very little movement forward.

That’s where I would start. There are a growing number of political actors, advocates and activists of all sorts, who are pressing for this.  And, of course, change in social policy is something each and every one of us can have an impact on in terms of the people we vote for.

At the organizational level, in businesses and in all organizations, there has also been progress, more than in social policy, because the private sector is responding to the demands of a labor market wanting more flexibility and more control over their lives so they can do the things that matter to them in all the different parts of their lives, including becoming parents. We are seeing  greater understanding and respect for how to enact a real flexible workplace. There are still many sources of resistance to transformation, including outmoded views about what a good working life looks like. But that is clearly changing and will continue to as young people — especially Gen Z — are pressing up against that resistance and pushing for change.

I took a leave from Wharton for a few years about 20 years ago to become head of leadership development for Ford Motor Company. And what we did there was to develop a model of leadership that’s about the whole person. We called it Total Leadership, and you can learn all about that and about the Baby Bust study and other research at totalleadership.org. It’s a systematic method for how to learn to become a better leader and have a richer life by knowing what’s important to you, knowing who’s important to you, and experimenting continually with how you get things done. We’ve seen powerful results in helping people to find greater freedom in their lives, to create more harmony and improved wellbeing, to perform better, and to grow faster as leaders.

The most recent version of that work is a book called Parents Who Lead, where we took the essence of the Total Leadership model and practice (which I’ve been teaching at Wharton now for over 20 years) and we applied it to parents. We worked with a set of Wharton alumni to develop with us a set of tools that help parents get on the same page in terms of their values and their collective vision, who is most important to them and how to connect with those people in meaningful ways, and how to experiment as a family to become closer to each other, more trusting, and better able to meet the needs of parents and the children.

In their business lives, people are more fruitful as a result of using this method because they are consciously and deliberately creating positive change that works for them, their families, their businesses, and their communities. So, this is one hopeful pathway. I think the most productive movement I’ve seen, and where I tend to focus (my background is as a psychologist) is at the individual and family levels. That’s where you can have the most noticeable, tangible impact.

But while signs of hope are there to see, I am pessimistic about the prospects for positive social change, as we look to see what is happening now, in the presidential election. I think it’s going to have a profound impact on so many aspects of social life, including and especially in terms of support for families and crucial freedoms, like control over our own bodies and how we choose to live in the kinds of families we want to create. So, political action at this time is an imperative for all of us, to speak out for the world we want.

Basiouny: In this book, you encourage people to push back, to challenge the notion of work being this badge of honor, this sense of heroism of working 10, 12, 14 hours a day. You encourage men to push back against the stigmas of masculinity, to engage. And what I’m hearing is that it can come from the top, from management, from organizations, and it can also bubble up from the bottom. It comes from people saying, “No, this isn’t really how I want to live my life. I think I can find a deeper, richer, more meaningful life” in both work and at home. I think that’s a really important message in your book.

Friedman: And that it is not possible to have it all at once, as you said in citing Betty Friedan, but that we can have more of what we want – as parents, and in other roles — if we take seriously the idea that to grow as a person, as a leader in your life, you need to have the courage to identify what’s important to you, to know what’s important to the people around you, and to look for opportunities to make change that’s good for you and the people around you. That’s what leaders do, after all.

We need to get beyond the trade-off thinking that the term “work-life balance” connotes. It’s a misguided phrase, because it compels you to think about the trade-offs you must make and distracts us from pursuing the possibilities for creative innovation. Of course, trade-offs are inevitable. But there are more opportunities to create positive change that can have a positive impact on all the different parts of life if you are intentional and smart about looking for them. The good news is there are many such opportunities, available to all.

Basiouny: I wanted to read a couple of sentences from your book. “The call to action described in this book is as relevant now as it was 10 years ago, perhaps more so. We can create a world in which people are free to choose whether to become parents, and to make the parenting path more feasible for those who want to pursue it.” What are your closing thoughts on that? Fifty years from now, where will we be?

Friedman: I think it’s going to depend on what happens this year in the presidential election. If we have people who are thinking about the future and about us as a society, who are in positions of executive authority making choices about investing in families and the health and education that parents need to be supported in growing well-nourished, open-minded citizens — that’s going to help a lot.

It’s impossible to predict how the world’s going to be 50 years from now. I’m the proud grandfather of three amazing people, and I think a lot about them and about what their world’s going to be like. My hope is we will make choices today that will enable them to be free to choose the lives that they want to live, in all aspects of their lives. I hold onto that hope, and I’m doing what I can to try to make it become real.