- First was, “Go Sharon!” because she did a great job laying out the powerful data that support why we all benefit from helping parents manage their work and life. And she honestly addressed the common roadblocks that get in the way. But then …
- I thought “Are we still having this same conversation 15 years later?!” You see, I could dig back through my files and probably find a similar article making many of the same arguments from 1990.
I’m becoming more and more convinced that the power of parenthood alone to catalyze a radical change in the way business, individuals and government approach work and life is limited.
No matter how many smart people, like Meers or Vice President Biden, join in the conversation, no matter how many pieces of research objectively state the need and benefits, we just can’t seem to move the needle.
We need a game changer. We need something that breaks us out of the rut we’ve been stuck in for 20 years and takes the debate to the next level. We need an issue that drives home the reality that finding new and better work+life strategies is not optional, or a “nice thing to do in good times.”
We need … to include the aging population. Why? It’s one of the greatest challenges both those who are aging and their caregivers (and, in turn, employers) are going to face in terms of the sheer number of people affected. Turns out, I’m not the only one who feels this way. Last week in The New York Times, David Brooks ranked “the aging population” first in the list of “deep fundamental problems” we are facing as a county.
As the parent of two beautiful children and as someone who can recite the bottom line benefits of work+life strategies in her sleep, am I frustrated that the argument for supporting parents hasn’t been enough to make more meaningful change happen? Yes, very.
But I’m also a realist who knows that at the end of the day change happens when people understand the “WIFM” or what’s-in-it-for-me. Adding the challenges of an aging population to the argument expands the base of people who “get it” and who are, therefore, invested in seeking solutions.
Here are some of the reasons I believe the work+life debate will finally get teeth if we add the challenges of aging. I’d love to hear your thoughts as well:
We don’t “choose” to have an aging parent, so it’s harder to dismiss it as a “choice” that you need to deal with on your own. One of the many honest insights that Meers shares in her article is that when you have a child people do look at it as a choice. Thankfully enough people make that choice to keep our civilization going. But when something is viewed as a choice made freely, it’s easier to abdicate your role in being part of the solution. None of us “choose” to have aging parents for whom we need to provide care. This makes it harder to minimize and dismiss.
Both men and women have aging parents which will equalize the caregiving experience. While women do continue to provide a majority of eldercare, men are increasingly just as likely to face the challenge. This may be the great equalizer of the caregiving experience we’ve been waiting because, like it or not, when we think of parenting we still too often think “mom.”
As one senior male leader explained to me years ago, “I realized what work+life conflict felt like when I was forced to choose between taking my elderly father who is losing his eyesight to the airport or putting him in a cab and attending a meeting. I looked into the future and saw only more decisions like this, and recognized my wife was not going to cover for me. She had a career after years of staying home with our kids and besides, he’s my dad. Not hers.”
To maintain a tax base that supports the social safety net of the aging population, we will need to keep every able-bodied person working. (Here’s a graph that compares the population changes by age–over the next decade there are fewer revenue generating bodies for each person over 65) We can’t assume women are going to “handle” it by not working. If economists are right, the growing wave of baby boomer retirements will make even more critical to creatively and flexibly retain talent that will also very likely have caregiving responsibilities for children and aging relatives.
THEREFORE, employers will have to FINALLY recognize that flexibility in how, when and where work is done is a strategic imperative for two reasons: 1) companies try to retain the talent of retiring boomers by offering greater flexibility and 2) all employees will need both day-to-day and formal work+life flexibility to care for their aging relatives and children while working.
In an era of government deficits and stretched family budgets, innovative, community-based caregiving models and technology will emerge. This must include better, and more affordable eldercare and child care because, again, we can no longer pretend someone else (e.g. a full-time, unpaid, female caregiver) is taking care of it. The most recent class of Ashoka Fellows includes two examples of creative community-based eldercare initiatives. And a recent article showcased technological advances for remotely monitoring aging parents from anywhere including from work.
There are more potential benefits from adding the realities for aging to the traditionally parent-centric work+life debate, but that’s a start.
Interestingly, read Vice President Biden’s official statement related to The White House Middle Class Task Force efforts related to work+life strategies,
“Women make up nearly half of all workers on U.S. payrolls, and two-thirds of families with children are headed either by two working parents or by a single parent who works. Yet, the workplace has, for the most part, not changed to reflect these realities–and it must. Closing the gender pay gap, helping parents keep their jobs while balancing family responsibilities, and increasing workplace flexibility–these are not only women’s issues, they are issues of middle class economic security.”
Where are men? (Perhaps inferred by “parent” but not explicitly mentioned) Where’s eldercare? Nowhere. To me, this is another a missed opportunity to change the game and finally take the debate to the next level. What do you think?