Caregiving and the Recession Generation

Note: This article first appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Aging Today, the American Society on Aging’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy. The article was last updated on December 19, 2016.

By Jen Mishory

My generation — Millennials, young adults ages 18 to 34 — can be described in many ways: they are the most diverse generation, the most educated and the hardest hit by the Great Recession. Increasingly, they can also be described as caregivers — for their grandparents, their parents and their children. Nearly one in four caregivers of an adult relative or friend is a Millennial, according to “PBS NewsHour” (http://goo.gl/fOUxhv), and Millennials represent 83 percent of new mothers, according to the Young Invincibles report, Without Maternity Coverage.

Unfortunately, those young people are taking on caregiving responsibilities at the time in their lives when they may be least able to afford to do so. Seven years after the Great Recession, Millennials are still struggling to gain an economic foothold, particularly when it comes to falling wages. Unemployment rates for Millennials’ remain 35 percent higher than those for older adults, and our youngest workers are still earning less than they did before the recession in 2007, according to Young Invincibles’ analysis of Current Population Survey data.

To make things more difficult, Millennials predominantly work in service industries, which are less likely to offer paid sick days, paid family leave or work schedules that allow caregivers to plan their care schedules in advance, according to a Young Invincibles report, Where Do Young Adults Work?. So how can we help enable Millennials to serve as caregivers, a critical role that is increasingly demanded of them, while still allowing them to hold jobs and improve their economic standing?

Potential Help for Millennial Caregivers

First, we need to improve our workplace leave policies. Millennials’ growing caregiving responsibilities require not only short-term illness protections, but also longer-term leave options, including access to paid family and medical leave. Unfortunately, only 13 percent of workers have access to paid family leave, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families, and these workers are disproportionately males in high-paying positions, according to a Young Invincibles Finding Time report. This leaves millions of low-wage Millennial workers and new moms without access to paid time off. For the more than one in five Millennial parents living in poverty, taking unpaid leave simply may not be an option.

Some solutions are currently being debated in Congress. The Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act would create a national paid family and medical leave program. Employees and employers would make small payroll contributions into a new family and medical leave fund and, in turn, would be able to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave. Significantly, the funds would be available to all workers who contribute, including younger, part-time and low-wage workers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ March 2016 National Compensation Survey found that more than half of service workers do not have access to paid sick leave. Among workers who do get paid sick days, millions are not permitted by employers to use these days to take care of a sick family member, only for their own illnesses, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families (http://goo.gl/kKScxa). A proposal called the Healthy Families Act would allow workers at businesses with 15 or more employees to earn up to seven paid sick days a year, which could be used to care for the medical needs of a family member — a great step.

Workplace Solutions for Caregivers

But we also need to change the ways in which some employers require workers, particularly low-income workers, to take on inconsistent work schedules including irregular hours and shifts that can change at the last minute. Many young workers are trying to get a degree while they work, and millions are parents relying on some form of external childcare, which is already a balancing act. And many are also caring for a grandparent or parent.

Yet among Millennial workers ages 26 to 32, 38 percent get their work schedule a week or less in advance, 44 percent have no control over when their workday starts or ends and 75 percent report fluctuations in the number of hours they work each week, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Among hourly and part-time workers, these percentages are even higher.

A proposal called the Schedules that Work Act, would help Millennial caregivers coordinate work and caregiving responsibilities. The Act would provide workers in target industries like retail and food service with two weeks advance notice of their schedules. In addition, employees would have a right to request schedule changes to take care of a child or family member, without retaliation. This would be a good start.

These challenges make it clear: better workplace policies are not just good for my generation — they are good for our family members from all generations. By instituting policies now that support working families, we can help ensure Millennials have both the time and economic security to take care of the people they love.

Jen Mishory is the Executive Director of Young Invincibles, a Millennial research and advocacy group that works to advance economic opportunity for young adults. She is based in their Washington, D.C., office. Click here to learn more and follow Young Invincibles on Twitter.