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? 

Yes, and there are several reasons for this. Men tend to prioritize money and power, which women want, too, but women are more value driven—
the meaning and purpose they derive from their work is as important as the size of their paycheck. Being part of a well-functioning team and finding friendship and creative flexibility in the workplace are as important to them as job title. At the same time, as women confront the likelihood of delayed retirement, they are becoming more intentional about seeking out a journey of discovery and meaning. In other words, this is newly on the front burner for a midcareer woman. She wants all those work hours to be meaningful. 

What are companies doing to help make this happen? Seems like a tall order, especially during a downturn. 

A few years ago, Cisco Systems launched a Leadership Fellows Program that allows high-performing midlevel executives to follow their passions for a year and lend their skills to a nonprofit of their choice, often in another country. Fellows continue to be Cisco employees with full salary and benefits. One woman 
I interviewed had taken time off to work for a consortium of NGOs in Africa. She brought an amazing set of skills to this nonprofit while on Cisco’s payroll, then came back to the company with new loyalty for having been given this opportunity. And Cisco recognized that she also returned with new leadership abilities. 

Another good example is Saatchi & Saatchi, which created a kind of “mini odyssey” program that lets employees swap jobs across continents and departments for six weeks. This program is very inexpensive for the company and has been shown to be a highly effective engagement and retention tool. 

What advice can you give to women who are contemplating an odyssey?

There is a financial and leadership-development logic to companies supporting these programs. If you can find the sweet spot where you have something you want to pursue and your company wants to give you career opportunities, you can make it happen. If you’re looking to leave your job eventually, or your firm doesn’t offer the kinds of programs we’ve been discussing, then strategic volunteering on your own time can be an avenue. 

One woman, an accountant at a big firm, knew she wanted a job with more social impact. Five or so years before she was ready to make a move, she decided to learn more about the nonprofit world. So she got involved with three nonprofits and ended up cochairing one of them for a year. Now she’s being interviewed for a board position at a national organization, which will put her in an even stronger position for the next step. And there’s another kind of odyssey that we should not forget about, the more traditional one. Did you know the Peace Corps has been actively recruiting older volunteers? In 2010, 540 women age 50 and above applied. 

What’s the next step in your own odyssey? 

I have gone global! My new work has taken me to Brazil, Russia—some of the most powerful economies in the developing world. I’ve released a study of college-educated women in India, and we’re launching a sister study, “The Battle for Female Talent in China.” My odyssey right now is giving myself permission to explore cultures I’m interested in, and as broadly as possible. I’m particularly fascinated by Indian sitar music. We’ll see where it takes me. 

First Published Mon, 2011-02-28 12:12

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