A slew of recent reports have sounded the alarm bells about gender equity in the workplace and offered solutions to rectify it, but they basically ignore a critical component of working women’s lives: balancing work and eldercare. Until we address the fact that tens of millions of working women are caring for aging relatives, we cannot adequately address what KPMG is calling a “mass exodus” and McKinsey is calling a “great breakup.”
Despite the fact that in April the Federal Reserve’s Monetary Policy Report showed that there were four times as many people out of the workforce due to adult care as there were due to childcare, most policy papers, corporate benefits packages and media reports only focus on motherhood as a work life challenge for women and completely ignore daughterhood. At best, they address “caregiving” as a catchall for women’s responsibilities at home, but let’s be clear: eldercare and childcare are significantly different and those differences present totally unique career challenges.
For starters, many professional women plan to start families. They consider how a child will impact their career, their finances, and their life overall. They research childcare and plan their maternity leave from work. Often, they start saving for college right away. But most women do not think about eldercare until they find themselves in the role. Sometimes, the responsibilities creep up on them without them realizing how much they are taking on. Or, they are thrust into the role after a crisis like a diagnosis or an emergency room visit. As a result, they have no plan for balancing care and career, no backup support and no money set aside for the inevitable out of cost expenses; more than $7,200 a year according to the AARP.
Another significant difference is that childcare typically becomes more predictable and less hands-on as a child ages. Parents know the exact age a child can start preschool, kindergarten and elementary school and they know when to schedule well checks with the pediatrician. This predictability means they know what hours they need care and what weeks they should take time off if they can. Eldercare, on the other hand, follows no predictable pattern. Even women who have leave options at work – paid or unpaid – struggle with how best to use that time to help their parents. Should they be there to advocate when parents are hospitalized or save the time off for when they are sent home and need hands-on care?
Speaking of medical issues, while an estimated 6.5 million Americans age 65 and older are living with Alzheimer’s or another dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, half of primary care physicians reported that they do not feel adequately prepared to care for individuals with dementia. This leaves millions of family caregivers on their own navigating an incredibly stressful and increasingly debilitating disease, all while having to earn a living. Imagine if working mothers had to rely on pediatricians who didn’t feel adequately prepared to deal with common childhood ailments.
To be clear, American businesses still have a ways to go in fully supporting working parents at work, but they are barely acknowledging their working daughters or sons. According to the 2022 SHRM Employee Benefits Survey, 31 percent of companies have policies where parents can bring a child to work as backup care for an unexpected event. But what’s a working daughter to do when the home health aide who cares for her mother or father doesn’t show up? It’s no wonder that working daughters report they struggle at work – often switching to a less demanding job, taking time off, or quitting work altogether.
If we are going to purport to care about working women in this country, then we must acknowledge a very real challenge so many face, and many more inevitably will with 10,000 people turning 65 every day. First, we must apply benefits equally, addressing both childcare and eldercare. We must offer referrals and subsidies for eldercare services, as well as for childcare services. Next, we need to acknowledge the ways workers with parents might access flex options differently than workers who are parents and adjust for that. We should also provide employee resource groups or other support programs for workers dealing with eldercare.
If we don’t fully address how to best support, and keep, all women in the workplace, any efforts to stem the tide of women leaving the workforce will continue to produce the same lackluster results we say we want to change. Tuesday, November 15 is National Working Daughters Day, the perfect time to recognize and support the people balancing work and eldercare.