The Recession's Silver Lining

No raise? No bonus? No problem, says economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett. As salaries stall, even cash-poor companies are finding creative ways to keep their top talent (you)

Pamela Stone
Photograph: Illustration by Quickhoney

Amid the recession—in which women are faring better than men, and so-called econo-moms are contributing an ever bigger share of family finances—economist, author and activist Sylvia Ann Hewlett detects a surprising new trend among professional women: a quest for meaning on the job, not off, that she dubs “the odyssey career.” Money and power are still compelling rewards, of course, but Hewlett’s research shows that an increasing number of women are in search of other things, namely a sense of purpose, an adventure, a chance to recharge their batteries. Such journeys may happen within a corporate context, or they may happen as a second act. Still, you have to wonder, Is an odyssey career an unlikely (or even unseemly) luxury at this moment of high economic insecurity? Hewlett doesn’t think so. “While it’s obscured by the overall numbers, the unemployment rate among college graduates is only 4 percent right now,” she says. The reality of this recession is forcing companies to look beyond the usual bonuses and raises in order to inspire and incentivize their employees.

Hewlett’s own odyssey took her first from a small Welsh mining town to Cambridge University and a PhD in economics from London University. One of six daughters of “a working-
class bloke who desperately wanted a son,” she says she “deeply understood the importance of changing the rules,” as she puts it—something she’s been trying to do ever since. The author of nine books, including the award-winning When the Bough Breaks, Hewlett was among the first to highlight the -dilemmas facing working parents, especially mothers. She forged an unconventional career, founding the Center for Work-Life Policy, a nonprofit think tank, and, more recently, Sylvia Ann Hewlett Associates LLC, a consulting firm. In addition, she directs the Gender and Policy Program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. I asked her to elaborate on her notion of a career odyssey. 


Your book Top Talent: Keeping Performance Up When Business Is Down, documents what innovative companies are doing to keep their best per-
formers. Your research shows that 42 percent of professional women plan to keep working past age 65. How do these two trends intersect?

Although some high-profile Wall Street firms are giving big bonuses, we are finding that at a time when most companies still can’t afford raises, they are figuring out what else motivates top talent. It’s about nonmonetary rewards. The recession is making everyone search more deeply for meaning beyond pay, status and typical perks.

So recessions are times of insecurity but also -moments for opportunity and reflection? 

Yes, it seems a recession is a terrible thing to waste. There is also a longer-term business logic at play. We have 78 million people in the baby boom generation but only 46 million in Gen X, roughly the 32-to-47 age group. Recession or no, big labor shortages are lurking around the corner, and progressive companies recognize this. So there’s a tremendous willingness to find innovative ways to nurture, retain and accelerate the careers of employees they can’t afford to lose, especially women, whose careers, until quite recently, got stalled in their thirties and forties. 

Are the innovations you’re seeing now helping women better integrate their professional and personal lives, and values, without taking a financial hit? 

First Published March 22, 2011

Share Your Thoughts!


Corbette Doyle04.22.2011

I absolutely agree with Sylvia that women are more likely to rank "meaning" & significance more--or as--heavily as other forms of "compensation." I'm just not sure this is a new phenomena. I think it is ONE of the reasons women are more likely to pursue staff jobs like HR, to pursue lower paying careers in education when the world is their oyster based on educational achievements, and to pursue NFP leadership roles over corporate leadership roles.

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