The New Workplace Reality Demands New Policies For Families

Fifteen years ago, I left my ex-husband with three children under the age of 3, a few boxes of clothes, and $147 to my name. A former stay-at-home mom, I began to look for work that would support my family, but quickly discovered an unsettling truth — the cost of daycare for three young children was almost as much as I could earn in a month.

After a few months of barely surviving, staring at empty cupboards, and juggling utility shut offs and eviction notices, I discovered that Washington state offers childcare subsidies for people in situations like mine. Once we were approved for a childcare subsidy, our finances stabilized enough for me to keep the lights on, but we soon found ourselves drowning in unpaid medical bills. Finding a job that provided medical insurance became a financial necessity.

Stories like mine were common before the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and medical insurance is still usually cited by employees as their most important benefit. But the times, they are a changin’, and the opening of the Health Insurance Exchanges in 2013 radically altered the landscape of American health care by decoupling health insurance from employment. A side effect of this shift has been the emergence of what many HR professionals now term a “free agent economy,” where employees are empowered to leave salaried positions for contract or project-based work, or even to start their own businesses.

One-third of American workers consider themselves free agents, according to a study released in September by staffing firm Kelly Services. Citing a desire for flexibility and not to be tied down, these workers overwhelmingly became freelance by choice rather than by economic necessity, and they report higher levels of satisfaction than traditional employees in the areas of overall work, work-life balance, skills development, and career advancement.

Much has been written and predicted about Millennials, but they have already begun to leave their mark on the workplace. While many reports suggest a doom-and-gloom employment scenario for Millennials, that spin is rooted in outdated perspectives of the marketplace. Rather than being edged out of the traditional career path, Millennials may simply be looking elsewhere. This generation makes up the fastest-growing group of freelancers, and they are also far more interested in alternative methods of education than previous generations. As the freelance market heats up, skills and experience have superseded hard-and-fast college degree requirements, leaving many Millennials without the motivation to complete their college degrees or even go to college at all.

Before the ACA really took off, many analysts believed that a Millennial’s risk aversion and desire for comprehensive health coverage would lead them away from freelance jobs and back to traditional employment paths. Instead, the opposite has been true. Millennials still care about health insurance, but they are willing to pay for it themselves on the exchange. It’s no wonder, then, that companies have begun outdoing themselves with outlandish benefits — such as YouTube’s putting green and indoor slide at their California headquarters — in order to attract top-notch talent.

This new “free agent” economy has the potential to radically alter the makeup of traditional employment. When employees do not feel chained to an employer-sponsored health plan, their bargaining power increases. An indoor slide is cute, but most employees — and certainly most working parents — could benefit far more from flexible work hours, paid parental and sick leave, and generous paid vacation time. Other family-friendly policies such as on-site childcare, backup childcare, and company-provided transportation to and from work should also be put on the bargaining table.

Otherwise, there is little impetus for professional workers who could command higher salaries as freelancers to give up the flexibility of freelancing in exchange for working for the Man.

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After I left my ex-husband, it took me two years to work my way into a salaried editorial position at a national wireless provider, and two more years before I moved into an editorial manager role with the world’s largest software company. By the time my youngest kids turned 6, I was making six figures, with a best-in-industry health plan, and my days of childcare subsidies and utility shut offs were a distant nightmare. By all standard measures, I was a “success.” What no one talked about was the impact of my success on my family — or me.

During those hectic years, as I slowly climbed the career ladder, it took a team of well-paid people to juggle the demands of my household. There is nothing unique in the tech industry about being expected to regularly put in more than a 40-hour work week and to work as long as it takes while on deadline, even if that means working all night long and heading back in the next day after a shower and a quick nap. The problem with my particular project was that it was almost always in deadline mode, and we rarely got that promised “downtime” — you know, working only 40 hours per week.

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It’s been 15 years since I embarked on a different career journey, but according to a new Pew Research Center study, not much has changed for full-time working parents. Of the full-time working parents surveyed, 39% of mothers said they feel like they spend too little time with their children and 59% said they don’t have enough leisure time (and more than half of working fathers agree on both counts). The outlook was even bleaker for parents with college degrees; 65% said they find it difficult to balance their job and family responsibilities, compared to 49% of non-graduates. The New York Times speculated that “one reason might be that professional workers are more likely than hourly workers to be expected to work even after they leave the office.” Bingo.

One of the most telling aspects of the new Pew study is that men and women report similar feelings of dissatisfaction with their work-life balance. In fact, more men than women report feeling that they do not spend enough time with their children (perhaps because women still provide the majority of child-related care at home, even when both parents work full-time), and that they do not have enough leisure time. Dissatisfaction with the status quo is not a “woman” problem — it is a parent problem.

Still, not every group of parents feels rushed and dissatisfied. Pew found one group that is mostly satisfied with their work-life balance: part-time working mothers. That group reports even more satisfaction with their time spent with partners and children than stay-at-home moms, and these women don’t perceive their lives as rushed or out of balance. Unlike their full-time working parent counterparts, these women are . . . happy.

Part-time workers shouldn’t be very happy. Very few part-time jobs offer comprehensive benefits packages, much less health care. If, as conventional wisdom reminds us, comprehensive benefits packages are the most important thing to employees, the part-time working mothers Pew surveyed shouldn’t be the happiest. Their happiness with their careers is a testament to the fact that today’s workers aren’t always looking for a traditional career path, and that they value time at home just as much as time at work.

In an age where almost anything can be delivered to your door in an hour, it should come as no surprise that workers want the same flexibility. Ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft catapulted the marketplace-based platform to the limelight and have since paved the way for dozens of similar services, such as Postmates and Instacart. These on-demand employers allow their employees (who are largely contractors) to set their own hours with the swipe of an app, and to work completely around their schedules. While these employment options may not always be as optimal as they seem, they still reinforce the “free agent” mindset and may make employees less likely to settle for a traditional employment opportunity in the long term.

Life-long employers have long since gone the way of the dinosaur, and regardless of academic consensus about employment trends, Americans are paving their own career paths. While the ACA opened the door for freelancers, it is just the beginning. Further decoupling benefits such as sick and parental leave programs from individual employers would create an even more demand-oriented marketplace. Today, many families are still forced to choose between working more or sacrificing basic necessities — but it doesn’t have to remain that way. As we change our ideas of personal success, and demand that our policies change, too, it will become even more possible for families to create careers that work for them, not just for their employers.

Eventually, if employers want to attract and retain quality talent, they will have to offer the workplace conditions working parents want simply to remain competitive, even if that means shifting away from salaried positions in favor of freelance and project-based roles. The Man may not give a shit about you, but he knows how to respond to changing market conditions.

Read more from The Establishment’s three-part series on the U.S.’s family policies:
Parental Leave Policies: America Vs. The World
The U.S. Makes Progress On Parental Leave — But Not Nearly Enough

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Lead image: the writer with her family

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