National Work and Family Month is a time for employers, managers and employees to take a close look at whether we’re doing enough to support the work that employees do at the workplace and at home. As part of this reflection, it would behoove each of us to step back and think for a moment about what we mean when we say “family.”
Most Americans now recognize that “family” is a complex concept that can include diverse family structures such as single parents, LGBT couples, and extended families. Unfortunately, for all of this talk about family diversity, when we think of family, many of us still picture people within a certain age bracket; we tend to think about 30- to 40-something parents with young children. However, it’s not only parents of young children who seek work-family balance and yet experience high degrees of work-life conflict. Work-family issues remain meaningful across the life course.
Family responsibilities don’t end the day the kids go off to kindergarten—or the day they go off to college, either. The current economic downturn with high unemployment rates has precipitated a dramatic increase in the number of young adults who move back home with their parents, with some estimates suggesting that as many as one of every five 25- to 34- year-olds live with their parents. Whether or not they have children living at home, the parents of many young adults today provide financial support, help with heath care, and other types of assistance to adult children who are well into their twenties. Although the specific nature of work-family challenges may change, work-family issues remain relevant to these young adults and their parents (who are, of course, the older adults).
Our country’s population is rapidly aging, and more employees have elder care responsibilities than ever before, with approximately 4 of every 10 employees reporting that they have provided some elder care ‘within the past 5 years.’ In some instances, these are the same people who are still handling childcare responsibilities, creating a phenomenon known as the sandwich generation—people whose years spent caring for children overlap with years caring for their aging parents.
The large number of young men and women coming back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with high needs for family support has also re-framed work-family experiences as multi-generational issues. Military families know that it’s not only service members who put in time and commitment for their country, but also spouses, parents of service members, and even their children. This commitment becomes even larger when the extended family becomes involved in care provided to a wounded veteran.
If we expect these new American families to remain strong and successful, we must ensure that families—all families—get the support they need. During National Work and Family Month, employers should take the time to examine whether their workplaces are designed to support all families—wherever they are in their life course.
While many of the work-life policies offered by companies are available to employees of all ages, often times they are designed with parents of young children in mind. Leading companies have started to address the age-diversity of families by offering options and supports like flexibility programs. Some of these, like phased retirement, have been designed for employees of specific ages or those at particular career stages. Other employers have recognized that the quality of jobs and paying attention to excessive work demands can help employees of all ages with work-family balance. Preliminary research by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work suggests that for older workers especially, excessive workload can undermine the positive effect of job quality on satisfaction with work-life balance.
They say that a mother’s work is never done. Well neither is a father’s—or a grandparent’s… or a child’s or a grandchild’s. That’s true today more than ever before, and we need workplaces that acknowledge the range of family responsibilities which extend across our adult years.
On a personal level, we understand that family relationships (and responsibilities) last a lifetime. We are desperately in need of workplace policies that take the life course perspective seriously.
Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, PhD
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College