The tenth annual National Work and Family Month comes at a time when issues of work-life balance are enjoying unprecedented attention. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s provocative Atlantic essay on “having it all” has been read and discussed by millions over the past few months; new Yahoo! CEO Marissa Meyer’s pregnancy has drawn a renewed focus to moms in management; and the need for workplace flexibility was even a presidential debate topic. While I am delighted by each of these developments, I still feel that we need to expand the conversation around work and family. I don’t just mean make it louder — although that’s important — I mean expand it to include all of the different people who want and need flexibility in order to manage both their work and family lives.
When we talk about work and family or workplace flexibility, we still almost always talk about working mothers. Sometimes working dads make it into the conversation, and now we often include those with elder care responsibilities as well. But there are many others who also stand to benefit from increased workplace flexibility. One group we almost never talk about is older parents with growing responsibilities for adult children.
As a recent National Academy of Science report outlined, the United States is in the midst of a major demographic shift, with people aged 65 and older encompassing an increasingly large portion of the population. As the NAS study notes, this shift will soon demand major policy changes. Of course, we have all heard about how this means more people will be enrolling in Social Security in coming years, but it also means a greater number of seniors in other realms. More older American are remaining in the workplace, and more are playing primary roles as caregivers to children, grandchildren, spouses and others — often while they’re still working. There’s another thing many older Americans are doing that they may not talk about so much: providing financially for grown children.
A forthcoming UCLA research study funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Working Longer program seeks to improve our understanding of such financial transfers and how they influence older Americans’ decisions about working later in life. While this field of research is in a nascent stage, several studies have already show that middle age and older parents are increasingly called upon to provide financial support to their grown children. A number of trends have contributed to this reality, including the fact that people are having children later in life, and that young adults are taking longer to establish their own financial independence.
As the population continues to age, I suspect this trend will grow as well. Surely, this will affect many older adults’ decisions about how long to remain in the workplace.
We already know that Americans are working later into life than in previous generations, and that older workers want something different than a conventional, full-time job, with options like job-sharing, part-time work, and extended time off increasingly in-demand among this demographic of workers — and a huge body of research showing that such options provide business benefits to employers.
As the family roles that older Americans play continue to evolve, so too will the roles they play in the workplace. While the data on this subject is still in development, I’m curious to know what experiences those of you out there in the working world have already had.
Parents: Do you provide financial support to your adult children? If so, does this mean you forsee yourself having to work later into life? And for the many of us who are working longer — for whatever reasons — what could your employer do that would help you to succeed while working longer?
Kathleen E. Christensen, PhD
Alfred P. Sloan Foundation