With ‘Big Life,’ Millennial Women Get a New Guide

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On a windy winter Thursday evening, six women clustered around a table in the airy, modern Manhattan apartment of Ann Shoket, the former editor in chief of Seventeen magazine. Between them sat two large platters of pizza and several half-empty bottles of rosé.

The group had gathered for the latest of Ms. Shoket’s regular dinners, which formed the basis of much of her research for her new book, “The Big Life.” A guide for women in their 20s and 30s who are hungry for a job they love, a supportive network of friends, respect from their bosses and partners who want all those things for them as badly as they do, the book is littered with references to Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Instagram, Tinder and South by Southwest.

It reads in many parts like a magazine — unsurprising given Ms. Shoket’s previous job — with quirky sidebars and interviews with women like Jennifer Hyman, a founder and the chief executive of Rent the Runway, and Alicia Menendez, an anchor on Fusion.

Alexandra Dickinson, 31, the chief executive and founder of Ask for It, a company that offers leadership and negotiation training, had just spoken about advising clients who felt that they had to “wait for their turn” rather than asking for a promotion or a raise.

Across from her sat Alessandra Biaggi, 30, the former deputy national operations director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, who wants to run for office eventually. “The wait-your-turn thing resonates with me so much, especially with politics, because that’s what I’m getting from people,” Ms. Biaggi said.

Sarah LaFleur, 33, the founder and chief executive of MM.LaFleur, a clothing brand, said: “I grew up in Japan, and I thought I wanted to be in politics, too. But it just wasn’t a thing you heard often.”

“That’s exactly the problem,” Ms. Biaggi responded. “Little girls should grow up and be like, ‘I want to be a nurse, a doctor, a politician.’ It should be normal. We need women at the table.”

She added that she wants to open the door to more women joining politics but struggles with the tension between being herself and what she imagines people think she should be.

“It’s amazing all these stale ideas that get stuck in your head,” Ms. Shoket said.

Earlier that day, at NeueHouse, a co-working space in Manhattan, she had reflected on her own evolution. “When I left Seventeen, I felt very strongly that I had something to say for the generation that grew up with me into the next stage of their life,” said Ms. Shoket, 44, who had been at CosmoGirl for eight years before joining Seventeen in 2007.

“We had had all these deep emotional conversations about how you navigate the terrain of adolescence,” she said. “Why did that stop when you turned 20?”

A book had long been on the table, and Ms. Shoket decided it was time to write it. But before she did, she wanted to brush up on the topics that matter to women in their 20s and 30s. So about a year ago, she decided to host a dinner with a few of them.

“It went for hours and hours,” she said. “We talked about relationships, about pressure, about equality. We talked about where their ambitions come from and what they hear from their parents.”

She decided to have more dinners. Eventually, she formalized the questions that kept coming up into a list that covers work idols (“Who is your icon of where you’d like to be in five years?”), generational differences (“How do you think differently about work than your parents did?”), imagined deadlines (“What do you feel you must accomplish by the time you’re 30? And what will happen if you don’t?”) and more.

In the first few pages of her book, Ms. Shoket encourages readers to host their own get-togethers. “It shouldn’t just be the six or eight women I can fit around my dining room table who could benefit from talking about this,” she said. “This should be a conversation that’s happening at dining room tables, propped up on pillows on floors, on little fold-up tables sitting in front of the TV, everywhere.”

With its community-building component and its message of fighting for the success-happiness-support triad, “The Big Life” may inevitably inspire comparisons to Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book, “Lean In.”

“I think that ‘Lean In’ and Sheryl Sandberg did a phenomenal job of starting a conversation about women and ambition at exactly the right moment,” Ms. Shoket said. “But I felt when I read it that it really didn’t connect with millennial women.”

In the chapter on finding a “Big Love,” Ms. Shoket, who is married and has two children, writes: “Having a child is serious business, but there is no reason you should be worrying about nannies and school pickup schedules at this stage of young Big Life.” The most practical parts of the book are tips on getting the first job, mastering the interview and dressing for success.

When it comes to dating, she advises young women to approach relationships the way they do their careers: with patience for the process and with no expectation of settling.

Ms. Shoket assumes her readers want a new world order — one in which they are unafraid to jump from job to job, from one opportunity to the next. “They want to move up and around, move fast, cover a lot of ground,” she said.

She says she still struggles with the question of how to be taken seriously as a woman in industries dominated by men (something Ms. Sandberg reckoned with in “Lean In” that remains just as relevant for the younger generation).

For Ms. Shoket, millennials are not only the focus of her book, but also the group that will spur the changes Ms. Sandberg advocates — but not in the ways Ms. Sandberg may have predicted.

“This generation of women is like: ‘What do you mean lean in? You lean into me,” Ms. Shoket said.