Everyday Revolutionaries: Working Women and the Transformation of American Life

"Everyday Revolutionaries: Working Women and the Transformation of American Life" by Sally HelgesenIn 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 working 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.

In his book, Whyte depicts representative community at a time when women’s influence was restricted to the domestic arena. Making this lack of influence clear, 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:

Breakdown of Barriers

The breakdown of barriers between work and home, public and private, men and women. For the first time in human history, men and women use the same primary tools to do their work. We also increasingly use these same digital tools to manage their lives at home. This results in a professionalization of home life and an increasing emphasis on personal expression and fulfillment at work, eroding the barriers that once kept them separate.

Customization In Our Lives

An increasing emphasis on customization in our lives. Because we have more choices in everything from the size of company we work for and the age at which we have children to the kind of sneakers we buy, our individual ways of living are increasingly customized to fit our specific but changing needs. 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 Life-Cycles

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, the ages and stages of our lives are not necessarily linked. And so the old “passages” approach to life is obsolete.

Integration of Learning and Work

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

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.