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Twenty-Somethings: Today's young adults placing family first

Jamie Malernee
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Amanda Allen holds daughter Ryanne as they and son Tyson, work on the computer while babbysitter Anabella Casilimos, left, waits to put the kids to bed in Weston, Florida, in June 2006. (Andrew Innerarity/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/MCT)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.--Gina Cadogan started her own business to work more flexible hours. Justin Chan quit his job to be Mr. Mom. Megan Smith pulls weekend shifts so her kids don't have to go to day care. Amanda Allen persuaded her boss to let her telecommute from home.

These parents have very different lives but one similar goal. To put family first. After watching Baby Boomers spend their lives on the corporate treadmill, divorce in historic numbers and often lose their jobs to downsizing, studies show that today's 20- and 30-somethings want something different for themselves and their children.

Following the philosophy of "do it all, just not at once," more women -- and a small but growing number of men -- are becoming stay-at-home parents while their children are young. Those who can't afford such an option or don't want to give up their careers are rebelling against traditional work schedules.

Instead, young parents are demanding flexible hours, alternative shifts or work-from-home arrangements, even if getting them means they have to switch careers, take pay cuts or start their own companies.

"We both want more for our children than what we got," said Cadogan, 33, an attorney who started her own law firm so she wouldn't have to worry about putting in "face time" and could sometimes work from home. Her husband, an engineer, is considering going part-time in a few years to spend more time with their two children.

"We sat down and said, `How are we going to make this work? What's the goal here?"" Cadogan recalled. "And the goal is the family."

Jennifer Rosario, 28, ponders her motherhood role models and admits she's a bit confused. Her mother gave up her career to raise her family. Her aunt is a successful professional who has her child in day care all day.

Rosario doesn't like either choice.

"It's about trying to find a balance, but it's hard for me to have any role models," Rosario said. "It seems like it's one or the other."

Balancing home and work life is not a new dilemma. But young adults today say they have special reason to worry. Most 20-somethings grew up watching both their parents working and know the toll and skill such juggling takes. Divorce rates in the United States hit an all time high when they were just babies. And the number of single-parent families continues to soar, as does the cost of living and housing.

"I dream about it, someone calling you Daddy and running around the house," said Hollando Mathurin, 22. "But it's very scary because you have to devote everything to them. You need to be financially stable."

All this has the current generation uneasy about how to pull off parenthood, said Seth Schwartz, a research assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of Miami. As a result, he said, delaying kids is the new norm.

"It's, `I'm not ready for this,'" Schwartz said. "`I'll think about it later.'"

When today's young women start having kids, a growing number no longer see juggling their roles as supermom and supermanager as the solution, said Laurie Ashcraft, a Chicago-based marketing consultant who studies gender and generational differences in the workplace.

Increasingly, she said, young women go from being extremely career-oriented in their 20s to dropping out of the workforce when they have saved up enough money and want kids. In the past three years, a survey conducted by her firm showed the number of women ages 20 to 25 who saw themselves in the workforce in the next five years dropped from 84 percent to 72 percent, while those unsure doubled from 10 to 20 percent.

Young women aren't the only ones re-evaluating their priorities.

According to a study by the Families and Work Institute, men are spending more time on child care and chores. Furthermore, men and women in Generations X and Y are half as likely as their Baby Boomer counterparts to place work before family and say they would gladly trade career advancement for more time off.

Justin Chan, 33, quit his job as an online producer this year to be a full-time father to his year-old daughter after his wife got the job of a lifetime as a college professor. The couple recently moved from Florida to Texas, where Chan's wife has potential for tenure and he now cares for the baby. And because Texas is cheaper, the couple were able to afford a 3,000-square-foot home there.

"In terms of the job search, we both decided that whoever got the better deal, they'd take it," Chan said. "The most practical thing was for me to quit."

Chan's father approves of the decision, saying he wishes he'd spent less time working when Chan's younger brother was a child.

"Nobody ever says, `Gosh, I wish I'd worked 50 hours a week or 60 hours a week,'" Chan said. "You say, `Gosh, I wish I'd spent more time with my kid.'"

For those who can't or don't want to give up their career, balancing work and home life is more complicated -- but the options are expanding, studies show.

The percentage of Americans with flexible work schedules that allow them to vary when they begin and end work has more than doubled in the past 20 years, from about 12 percent to almost 28 percent of all employees, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Bruce Tulgan, founder of Rainmaker Thinking, a consulting firm that helps chief executive officers manage generational differences in the workplace, said younger workers are aggressive about going after these arrangements. He said 20- and 30-somethings are stronger advocates for themselves because they expect to change jobs many times and place higher value on the work-life balance. They also aren't afraid to take risks and question authority, thanks to parents who brought them up with "self-esteem on steroids."

"They come in and say, `What do you need? What are you offering me? And by the way, I need to leave at 4 to pick up my son,'" Tulgan said. "And if the boss says, `Look kid, that's not the way we do things here,' they'll say, `Well, why not?'"

When bosses don't cooperate, many young adults end up switching jobs, starting their own companies or negotiating tailor-made schedules. Cheri Lynch chose a career as a massage therapist because it lets her set her own hours, enabling her to have three kids before 30.

"If I want to be home with my kids, I'm home with my kids," said Lynch, whose husband is a teacher and also has family-friendly hours.

There are trade-offs to having a non-traditional work schedule, however.

"I took a significant drop in salary, I gave up my title and I gave up my benefits," said Dr. Hilit Mechaber, 35, an assistant professor at the University of Miami's school of medicine who went part-time to raise her family.

There can also be personal sacrifices.

Megan Smith, 29, a physician's assistant, works two 10-hour shifts on the weekends and one during the week so she doesn't have to send her two children to day care.

"I don't get to see much of my husband, which is the hardest part," she said. "But in the long run, I think it will be worth it."

Amanda Allen can't imagine a better arrangement than the one she has. The mother of twins is one of more than 22 million Americans who work from home, a growing segment that makes up about 16 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to the Dieringer Research Group.

Allen, 31, persuaded her boss by showing how telecommuting would make her more productive, saving her two hours of commuting -- time she could be working.

"As long as I have my computer and my cell phone and access to e-mail, I can work from anywhere," said Allen, who handles client services for a sports agent.

She has a nanny from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. to keep distractions down.

"It's amazing."

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