Leading Academics Discuss Changes in Family Life and Implications for 21st Century Workplaces

In advance of the White House Summit on Working Families next month, we have engaged working families, business leaders, and other stakeholders from around the country to determine how best to meet the needs of 21st century families and workplaces. We continued this important conversation by meeting with academics to discuss the most recent research on working families, including changing demographics, modern marriage, workplace flexibility, and effective management practices that boost companies’ bottom lines by boosting the productivity of their workers.

At the meeting, researchers painted a picture of changing family life with fewer families having separate roles for men and women and more families struggling to combine work with their caregiving responsibilities. They also discussed the differing needs of families across the income distribution. College-educated women have children later when they are in jobs that are more demanding, but have greater income and potential for flexibility. In contrast, less-educated women are having children younger, in their early to mid-twenties, when they are in less stable jobs that are less likely to provide them with access to family and medical leave. Middle-class couples are marrying less often and later in life, cohabitation has become more common across all income levels, and divorce rates have fallen, although most notably among highly educated couples.

Research has shown that parents, particularly those who are highly educated, are spending more time with children, leaving less time for leisure. The role of mothers and fathers are converging as men are spending more time on housework and child care and both men and women are increasingly expecting women to be in the labor force. At the same time, both men and women are increasingly saying that work is interfering with family life. And since Americans are living and working longer, periods where workers will need to take time out of the labor force to provide care for themselves, their children, or their aging parents will only become more common.

While there have been major changes in the makeup and resulting needs of today’s workers and families, workplaces have been slower to respond to these changes. And while many firms offer workplace flexibility, it is often available only to a small percentage of employees. However, research has shown that workplace flexibility policies can be positive for businesses’ bottom lines since these policies help businesses recruit and retain workers and increase the motivation and productivity of current employees. A comprehensive study of 700 firms in the U.S. and Europe conducted by business management researchers found that work-life balance policies are positively associated with good management and business success. In addition, one randomized evaluation found that when call center employees were allowed to work from home, there was a 13% performance increase.

Some states, cities, and employers have adopted family-friendly policies like paid family leave, paid sick leave, and workplace flexibility, but many working families, particularly those working paycheck to paycheck, don’t have the ability to adjust their schedule to manage the often chaotic demands of daily life. Low-income families struggle to pick up enough hours to make ends meet and are faced with additional obstacles brought on by inflexible and unpredictable scheduling characteristic of low-wage jobs, namely insufficient access to quality, affordable child care and sick leave.

Our valuable discussion provided the research undergirding many of the important issues to be covered at the broader White House Summit on Working Families next month.  

We would like to thank the researchers for their contributions to the field and for attending yesterday’s meeting:

  • Dr. Nick Bloom, Stanford University
  • Dr. Heather Boushey, Washington Center for Equitable Growth
  • Dr. Andrew Cherlin, The Johns Hopkins University
  • Dr. Kathleen Christensen, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
  • Dr. Kathryn Edin, Johns Hopkins University
  • Dr. Ariel Kalil, University of Chicago
  • Dr. Shelly Lundberg, University of California, Santa Barbara
  • Dr. Elizabeth Peters, The Urban Institute
  • Dr. Robert Pollak, Washington University in St. Louis
  • Dr. Sarah Turner, University of Virginia
  • Dr. John Van Reenen, London School of Economics (Visiting Harvard University)

Betsey Stevenson is a member of the Council of Economic Advisers.

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