A Family Friendly Work Culture

President Obama recently told an audience of CEOs that employment policy in this country must become more family friendly. He emphasized paid family leave, though he stopped short of proposing a federal plan. What the president seems to have missed, and what the new book, Thirty Tomorrows, makes clear, is how business and government are poised to create a more family-friendly work environment quite apart from his pronouncements or good wishes.

The force that will propel this transformation is the nation’s aging demographics. Decades of low birth rates have slowed the flow of young people into the workforce just as the aging baby boom has begun to swell the population of dependent retirees. The nation, according to the Census Bureau, will see the number of working-age people available to support each retiree fall from 5.2 today to barely 3.0 by 2030. Employers – government, private, large companies and small – will compete for this relatively small group of trained, disciplined workers, offering higher wages and altering policy as well as workplace practice to suit particular needs of each group of workers. Immigration reform will take on different contours from today’s debate in order to bring the most talented workers into the country. Firms will offer more flexible hours to keep older workers out of retirement and on the job longer. Critically, in this context, they will also show more flexibility in meeting women’s needs and that speaks to work-life balance.

Part of that concession will come in straightforward pay increases as businesses compete with each other and government for relatively fewer trained, reliable workers. That effort will also erase gender-based pay differentials. But government and business will also doubtless offer further inducements in the circumstance by helping increasingly with child care, an obligation that, for all the fashion of helpful fathers, still falls mostly to women.

Here there are a number of avenues to pursue. There is every reason to expect government to step up tax breaks for both the providers of child care and for those who buy the services, either individuals, families, or employers. Part of the push might also involve universal licensing and inspections, to give parents peace of mind that they do not now always have today. Work rules will also change. To lure scarce workers, employers increasingly will allow release time for parents to ferry children from schools to other supervised activities. They will even offer on-site child care, especially in factories and office campuses where thousands of workers gather each day. Some may be full-time facilities, some less complete arrangements to help parents cope with after-school needs and school holidays. Indeed, several large employers have already begun to provide on site child care facilities of one sort or another. It is also conceivable that authorities, under pressure from both parents and employers, will allow children to enroll in schools closer to a parent’s workplace than to home. This is not so farfetched as it might sound. Already, several employers in need of staff have set up nearby charter schools to lure workers by offering a good education for their children, probably cheaper for the employer than luring workers with a premium wage.  

Whatever the exact configurations of the accommodations, it is apparent that the unfolding demographic pressure will make the workplace more welcoming and rewarding for women. The change will come less out of some sudden liberal enlightenment in the executive suite than from its own selfish need for skilled, reliable staff. But the change will come nonetheless, perhaps more securely this way. In time, such accommodations – greater flexibility on hours, change in the nature of compensation, a more family-friendly milieu – should alter the basic nature of the workplace.

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