Symbolism is important for driving cultural change. Within this presidential campaign, there have been many powerful symbolic conversations and actions related to work+life fit. For the first time:
- The male and female candidates on both Obama and McCain tickets and their spouses talk about how they manage their unique work+life fit choices and challenges; and
- Both campaigns list work+life front and center as part of their economic agendas.
The question then becomes how do the McCain and Obama administrations plan to translate that shift in awareness into action that impacts the reality of individuals?
Ellen Galinsky of Families and Work Institute recently hosted two unprecedented conference calls in which representatives from both campaigns outlined the specifics of their philosophy, policies and programs related to a broad range of work+life issues. Detailed transcripts and commentary on these calls is available at www.familiesandwork.org.
Having listened to both calls and read the transcripts (which I urge you to do), two very different approaches emerge in a number of areas. To provide a context in which to compare the two strategies, here is an overview of the trends in work and life presented by Brad Harrington, the Executive Director of the Center for Work and Family at Boston College in a recent presentation at Cornell University:
- Aging workforce and generational diversity
- Challenges of working in a more diverse workplace (e.g gender, race, ethnicity, religion)
- Increasing workload, stress and dramatic increase in health care costs
- Globalization, working across cultures, and the 24×7 workplace
- Pervasive use of technology and working virtually
- Growing importance of work-life.
I would add:
- Increasing pressure on businesses to cut costs and work smarter/better, and additional financial uncertainty and work-related pressures for individuals.
- Ever-increasing pace of change that requires organizations and individuals to adapt and respond by being even more flexible in the way work is done, life outside of work is managed, and business is run in order to thrive.
In the context of this work+life reality, my thoughts on the Obama and McCain work+life strategies are as follows:
Obama Work+Life Strategy—What I like:
- Sees work+life as mainstream economic and social policy issue
- Flexibility is a partnership between government and business through a combination of incentives and education to support the benefits. The government would be a model employer and Obama endorses the Kennedy legislation allowing employees to present a plan for flexibility, but still give the employer the right to determine whether or not to approve.
- Power of the “bully pulpit:” Leveraging the power of the President to move the conversation and change understanding and perception about work life issues.
- Expanding FMLA coverage to more people, and more issues including eldercare, parental participation in academic activities, and situations of domestic violence.
- Making FMLA a paid leave.
- Employers would have to provide seven paid sick days.
- Comprehensive approach to care for children: Taking a comprehensive approach to children ages 0-5, as well as after-school care for school age children.
- Increase minimum wage.
- Seeing role of government as supporter and facilitator of solutions for business: “We are in a tough time economically so we don’t want to do anything that is ineffective or inefficient or that would actually hurt employers. Government bureaucracy needs to be changed, but in some cases it will be a conversation (about) cultural norms. People don’t want a hand out, but do want a government that is on their side.
Obama Work+Life Strategy—Concerns:
In a nutshell, my concern is cost, especially given the recent economic downturn. And from a pure cost perspective, yes, these proposals will be expensive. But in the context of the work+life reality outlined earlier, the benefits from the overall investment will offset a sizeable portion of the costs through increased productivity, goodwill, workforce preparedness, and enhanced global competitiveness in terms of a flexible workplace and workforce. In other words, from a pure “cost” perspective I am concerned. From a cost/benefit perspective, I am less concerned given the positive results I’ve observed over the past 13 years in the work+life field.
McCain Work+Life Strategy—What I like:
- Plan to set up a Commission on Workplace Flexibility and Choice made up of a bipartisan group of workers, small and large employers, laborers, academics. They would sit down, look at the issues, and come up with recommendations to modernize labor laws, look at training needs, flexible work arrangements, and how to promote telework. Other issues reviewed would include health care portability, and retirement plans. The commission would be based at the Department of Labor.
- Higher education, simplify access to credits and supports so that people can more easily understand the supports that are out there and access them.
- Review tax code related to telework—opposes internet taxes and new cell phone taxes that would undermine telework.
- Create “centers of excellence” for Head Start in every state that other Head Start programs could emulate.
- Improve the way money for Head Start and after-school program is spent with standards for measuring teachers who are performing well who have students who are ready to leave and move to the next grade.
- Programs to train retirees to teach and mentor students at high-risk for dropping out.
McCain Work+Life Strategy—Concerns:
In the context of the work+life reality outlined earlier, my concern overall is that the McCain approach focuses too much on direct “costs” of programs and policies, without considering the benefits in terms of productivity, and workforce preparedness:
- Because FMLA is not paid, many employees can’t afford to take it. On the surface, this saves employers money, but in reality all an employer gets is a distracted, stressed, unproductive employee who is unable to care for their family.
- While not mandating sick leave seems like a cost-saving idea on the surface, it actually encourages sick people to go to work and their sick children to go to school which infects everyone else thereby increasing the amount of sickness and reducing productivity.
- How are parents in general and low-income parents specifically, supposed to work without full-time care for their children? As noted in the transcript of the calls, I’m not sure the McCain plan to focus on making sure money in Head Start and after-school programs is spent more effectively and not adding additional money is going to provide the level of care needed in both of these areas. Again, in terms of direct dollars spent the cost would be high; however, the return on the investment from quality child care for all ages in terms of parental productivity and school readiness has been proven to be strong.
Common issues both plans addressed:
- Healthcare—they agree we need to reform the system, but differ on how. I will leave it to healthcare experts to argue the pros and cons of each approach.
- Eldercare—they both recognize it’s an issue and needs to be addressed with an emphasis on long-term care and flexibility.
- Energy—they agree we need to relieve some of the cost pressure from energy, again the nuances of their approaches are beyond my expertise.
- Oppose Wage Discrimination—they agree wage discrimination based on sex is wrong, but the legislative approach to address the issue differs in ways I am not able to comment on knowledgably.
Common concerns about both plans:
- New Skill Set: We need to be taught how to manage our work and life in partnership with our employers. And most of us don’t know how. I wish I heard more from both campaigns about the fact that we, as individuals, need to play a big part in coming up with mutually-beneficial work+life fit solutions, and we need the skills to do it. How are we going to get those skills?
- New Language: As I have said before, I am concerned about the work+life language both campaigns use. They need to expand the work and “family” language to include everyone in the context of our work+life reality. The work and “life” language with family being a big part of that experience is a potential solution. The same holds true for the word “balance.” It’s too limiting and conveys that there is one “right” answer, which doesn’t reflect the reality that there are countless ways to combine work and life that depend upon your unique work and personal circumstances day-to-day, and throughout your career.
Bottom-line: I may not agree with everything each candidate is trying to do within his campaign’s work+life strategy. In fact, when analyzed in the context of the reality of work and life, I think both could do more to help employers, employees and their families become more flexible and adaptable and better able to thrive in an increasingly changing world.
That said, both McCain and Obama deserve credit for making work+life issues more front and center than they have ever been in an election. Hopefully, we will see real change and long-overdue progress after November 4th.
What do you think? Given the work+life reality we all face, how would you rate the philosophy, and proposed policies and programs of the two candidates?