The pandemic has shattered all notions of work-life balance, to the benefit of working moms
There is a reimagining of work and care in the wake of the pandemic, which is expected to disproportionately benefit working parents and mothers in particular.
Employers need to be careful. Previously, it was at the forefront of providing paid time off and childcare benefits, or providing private spaces and breaks for women to pump. And such policies are still the exception, not the norm. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than 1 in 4 parents have some type of formal family leave policy to work after the birth or adoption of a child. Many nursing or pumping rooms are damp, depressing closets.
But now parents are asking for a more fundamental restructuring of what work looks like and how to balance work and family life. More precisely, most workers, regardless of their sex or age, ask for increased flexibility, with parents particularly interested. A recent CNBC poll found that half of Americans plan to quit their jobs, with working parents being twice as likely to want to quit their current job.
In some ways, the desire for flexibility among working parents (and especially mothers) is nothing new. Even before the pandemic, a Gallup study on women and work found that a lack of flexible hours and remote work were the main reasons stay-at-home moms said they were not looking for jobs. Interestingly, these concerns have far exceeded those of child care costs, despite almost all of our national political conversation focused on them.
A tight job market, record resignations and 18 months of normalizing remote work and opening our eyes to the juggling between home and family life have only added to the cause.
Increased flexibility could be the result of the pandemic which, moreover, weighs heavily on working parents, and mothers in particular. More flexible hours – where possible – could help women bridge the gap between having young children at home. Compared to our peers at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the labor market participation of American women lags, which researchers have attributed in large part to the lack of family-friendly policies. With recent Pew polls showing that most fathers feel they spend too little time with their children, men can increasingly take advantage of these options as well.
Some expressed concern that more flexible options could lead to mothers being ‘followed by mom’. Certainly, we are seeing fewer women internationally reaching the heights of management that women occupy in the United States, which is likely due to longer periods of leave. But in general, more options for structuring work and family life are likely to be better. And broader standardization of these policies could help reduce some of the judgment women feel about their use. According to a recent study by McKinsey and LeanIn, mothers of young children tend to fear the repercussions of a demand for flexibility more than fathers of young children or other workers.
Others expressed concern about the flexibility policies of companies favoring parents over non-parents. But young children deserve differentiated treatment, and people do not remain parents of young children forever. This part of parenting lasts a small number of years compared to a 40-year career and is worth a short-term investment and sometimes some downside. It is in all of our interests to live in a country where the rising generation is cared for by parents who can be present and involved and ensure that their children benefit from quality early childhood care.
There are steps businesses can take to increase flexibility, and the answer is likely to vary widely. According to data from McKinsey & Company, it is estimated that 20 to 25% of the workforce could work from home three to five days a week without any loss in productivity. The share of workers who could work from home at least one day a week is 40%.
Employers can allow more flexible hours or even more predictable schedules for planning child care, which is often overlooked by hourly workers. A recent Politico article reports that Etsy is grouping its meetings into three-hour blocks in the middle of the day from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. to give workers more autonomy during their day. It also has the advantage of allowing parents to go back and forth to school or extracurricular activities.
During one of the closed-door sessions of the inaugural Politico Women Rule event (which I was a part of), a company described trying various flexible arrangements in 90-day increments to see what works best.
Certain jobs, in particular for positions in contact with the consumer, will not necessarily have the same level of flexibility. But as workers turn to jobs with more flexible hours, we can see an increased wage advantage for in-person work. In fact, we are already seeing strong upward wage pressure for front-line positions.
All of this brings us to the future of work. The national conversation about paid time off, child care and family-friendly policies is long overdue, and it’s good that we have it. The United States is the only country in the developed world that does not have a paid parental leave policy, and Americans understand this well. President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden have little in common, but both have proposed federal paid vacation plans.
Our current patchwork of childcare support leaves out the low- and middle-wage workers on whom we should arguably be targeting the majority of our support. The Democrats’ Build Back Better plan is a big overshoot and has the potential to increase child care costs even further, but we can do a better job of directing support to families where child care costs don’t. are not just an inconvenience or an uncomfortably large expense, but an obstacle to work and financial independence.
Yet in many ways, this is only the tip of the iceberg. The pandemic has revealed that the defined solution to supporting working parents is much broader and deeper than a benefits sheet or the political conversation in recent decades. As companies experiment with how to retain and recruit talent in this post-pandemic environment, they may well open up a new future of work and care.
Abby McCloskey is an economist and founder of McCloskey Policy LLC. She has advised several presidential campaigns. Website: mccloskeypolicy.com
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