This week, in her first major speech outlining her economic platform, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton highlighted one of the most pressing economic issues of our time: the changing world of work and the transition to the gig, or contract, economy.
Global flattening, technology disruptions, longevity, and shifting demographics are completely upending the old models of employment. Education and professional credentials are no longer a guarantee of employment security. The Uber-style gig economy is rapidly growing. A 2010 study by the software company Intuit estimated that by 2020, more than 40 percent of the American workforce will be “contingent workers.”
How this transition plays out, both collectively and individually, is a frightening unknown, and it’s clear that we’ll need policy adjustments to support this seismic shift.
But we’ll also need stories and examples that illustrate how people can structure their careers, workdays, and personal lives to better position themselves in this new landscape.
This is where the experience of working moms comes in.
Our collective conversation on working mothers tends to focus on either their lack of representation in senior roles or on the merits of mothers “choosing” to work.
What is often overlooked is the way working mothers provide tangible examples of how individuals can successfully manage their careers — looking beyond the classic employer/employee relationship that still dominates our narrative on how work should happen.
Over a five-year period, as I researched my book “The MomShift,” I interviewed and followed the careers of more than 500 successful working mothers. The goal was to showcase success stories that went beyond celebrities or the corporate elite and to share a greater diversity of individual and professional experiences.
What I found was that the stories of working mothers are relevant to anyone looking for different ways to build a successful career.
Here’s why: The traditional 9-to-5 lockstep full-time employee model — which relies on a gendered division of labor, a preference for employees with a continuous and linear work history, and a demand for lots of onsite face time — was never designed for women. And certainly not women with children.
And so working mothers have always been at the forefront of finding and trying new ways of working. As economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett first observed in her 2007 book “Off-Ramps and On-Ramps,” more than 60 percent of highly qualified women have nonlinear careers.
Nearly 70 percent of the women I interviewed achieved their postbaby career success by adapting, ignoring, or modifying this classic career template in some way. Across industries and sectors, they built careers by combining contract projects, freelance gigs, and part-time employment — alongside other entrepreneurial ventures and periodic in-house stints.
Their experience provides practical examples on resilience, reinvention, and changing the frame of the workday, as well answers to questions such as: How do you manage the cycle of contract work? If you are a consultant, when do you get a promotion? How do you rebrand yourself based on market trends, juggle multiple professional fronts, tactically moonlight, and along the way adjust the other areas of your life to better mitigate the risk of this type of employment?
All of this is exactly what more of us will need to do in the years ahead.
Clinton has taken a critical first step in raising the issue. The collapse of the traditional employer/employee contract is scary, and the dismantling of the classic career path is unnerving.
But as Clinton recognized, this is also a time of potential opportunity. Our work lives might not look how we thought they would or should, but they can still work — and maybe even be better than we imagined.
Reva Seth is the author of “The MomShift: Women Share Their Stories of Career Success After Children.”