“For all the attention on parents — and mothers in particular — who stopped working to care for children during the pandemic, four times as many people are out of the work force, caring for spouses, siblings, aging parents and grandchildren.” – Washington Post, April 4, 2022
Finally, the data to back up what millions of working daughters, and sons, already knew: balancing care for an adult, with a career, is a monumental challenge. The latest Federal Reserve’s Monetary Policy Report shows that four times as many people are out of the workforce due to adultcare as are out due to childcare. In fact, caregiving is the second-largest factor keeping people out of work, behind early retirements. Now, can we get real about supporting working daughters and sons?
News outlets are full of stories about the challenges of working parents, and rightly so. Managers, HR departments and company benefits address how to support working mothers and fathers, and rightly so. But workers with parents need as much, if not more attention and support, as workers who are parents.
A recent Washington Post article highlighted the issue. “The pandemic has amplified a problem that’s been endemic in the labor force for a long time, which is that caregiving takes a very significant toll on both the amount of hours someone can work and the jobs they can take,” said Joseph Fuller, a professor at Harvard Business School whose research focuses on the future of work.
And while employers are increasingly more accommodating of child-care needs — offering parents flexible schedules, in some cases, or on-site day care — that hasn’t been the case for adult care, which often becomes more labor-intensive over time. In most cases, … child care is tough early on but becomes more manageable as children gain independence and go to school. With older adults, the opposite tends to be true.”
Childcare and eldercare are not the same
The Post raises an excellent point. While many compare childcare and eldercare, and even go so far as to refer to eldercare as “parenting our parents,” it is quite different. Childcare, for the most part, has some built in predictability. A parent has guidelines on ages and stages and the expected development that goes along with them. They know at what age their child will head to school, for how many hours a day, and when the scheduled breaks will take place. With adult care, there is none of that. An adult child or spouse has no idea when someone may get a life altering diagnosis, take a bad fall or start to decline. And disease and aging follow now standard schedules. This is why blanket family leave policies are inadequate in supporting caregivers. It’s difficult to give two weeks notice for an unknown emergency.
There are more significant differences. Childcare, for many, is a time of hope and joy. Adultcare, for most, is complicated by grief and facing death – topics we’ve been taught to avoid most of our lives. Parents caring for children can do so from a place of authority. When caring for an adult, we must respect and consider their autonomy. It is misguided for managers to conflate the challenges of a working daughter, son or spouse, with that of the working mother or father – unless of course they are considering the millions of workers who are caring for both child and adult!
I have had the challenge and privilege of caring for my children, my parents and my spouse at different times, all while serving as my family’s primary breadwinner. The work life balance was challenging in all cases, and definitely more so in caring for the adults for the reasons mentioned above. On top of those challenges, adultcare was a much more isolating experience too. Think about it: while it’s culturally acceptable to talk about an infant’s diaper disaster or a toddler’s antics among your close work peers, nothing kills the collegial vibe like a mention of adult incontinence or the behaviors of someone with dementia.
With one in five workers balancing paid work with care duties, we must do more to support working caregivers at work or we run the risk of a major talent exodus in the coming years.