Everyday Revolutionaries: Working Women and the Transformation of American Life

In Everyday Revolutionaries, I explore how women’s participation in the workforce is changing our organizations, our families, and our communities. I do this by holding up a magnifying glass to the women in one of today’s typical “edge city” suburbs—Naperville, Illinois.

Why Naperville? In part, because it exemplifies the kind of place where more and more of us live: in fast-growing, diverse, sprawling suburbs spread along major transportation corridors, with good schools and a healthy mix of jobs, especially in the technology sector. But I also chose Naperville because it seemed a perfect end-of the century counterpart to Park Forest, Illinois, which William Whyte depicted in his 1956 classic, The Organization Man.

Whyte’s book depicts organizations and a representative community at a time when women’s influence was restricted to the domestic arena. In fact, in his book he refers to the men of Park Forest “typical Americans,” and the women as “the wives of typical Americans!” The Organization Man thus provided me with a perfect benchmark to measure just how much things have changed as the result of women becoming a force in the world of work– and to identify what things have changed.

What did I find? In essence, I uncovered five major trends that are reshaping our organizations and communities. These trends are the result only of women entering the workforce, and of economic and technological changes that have been occurring at the same time. These trends include the following:

The breakdown of barriers between work and home, public and private, men and women. As men and women use the same primary tools of work (for the first time in human history), and as the technologies of work are increasingly used at home, our domestic lives have become more professionalized, while we our lives at work have increasingly become a means of seeking personal expression and fulfillment.

An increasing emphasis on customization in our lives. Because we have more choices in everything from the size of company we work for to the age at which we have our children to the kind of sneakers we buy, our own individual ways of living are increasingly customized to fit our specific needs as they change and evolve over time. And so the trend to customization and the niche we find in consumer products and services finds an echo in how we live our lives. In Everyday Revolutionaries, I call this The Starbucks Syndrome of American Life.

The breakdown of generic life-cycles. In the Organization Man era, the generations moved together through life as if in lockstep, doing the same things at the same time—getting married, having babies, retiring. You could tell the stage someone was likely to be at by their age. By contrast today, our ages are not necessarily tied to the stages through which we are passing. And so the old “passages” approach to life is obsolete.

The integration of learning and work. Because we change jobs and even careers throughout our lives, and because a knowledge economy requires us to keep our skills current if we want to retain our value, we can no longer do all our learning before we enter the workplace. Instead, we are increasingly integrating periods of new learning with periods of work, and doing so throughout the course of our adult lives.

A new view of retirement. We are no longer looking toward retirement as a time to draw entirely back from the world of work, but rather as a time to pursue fresh interests and new ventures, or to fulfill long-delayed ambitions. Women are leading this trend.

Doing the research for Everyday Revolutionaries, I became aware of the extent to which women have become the pioneers of the post-industrial world, improvising the solutions to a world that is changing rapidly and in unpredictable ways. Women’s participation in the workforce has become the driving force of change, in everything from how we raise our children to how we worship, forcing us all onto a new frontier that requires both an independent spirit and the ability to build serial communities.