At the turn of the century, the massive entry of women into the workforce fueled a national concern with work-life balance. These new employees wanted and needed to work, but most also bore primary responsibility for sustaining their families. This fact ignited a movement toward flexibility in the workplace.
The industrial legacy with its 9-to-5 onsite model began to give way to a workplace needing leaves, childcare and flexible schedules. The challenge of succeeding at work and at home, while still a stretch, was made more feasible – until it wasn’t. What new trend upset the applecart?
Parents morph into the “sandwich generation:” caregivers of parents and children
An early indicator of today’s Longevity showed up in this period as young parents also found themselves facing the challenge of supporting a generation of parents living longer than ever and needing various forms of assistance in what was becoming longer retirements. Young parents – primarily women – needed to balance increasing responsibilities at work with intensifying and diverse versions of caregiving. The term “eldercare” joined childcare in the work-life lexicon.
Inadequate as the patchwork elements of childcare supports might have been, the attempts by employers to help those supporting distant parents in various states of economic security and health were never as robust and successful. There was no equivalent of onsite childcare centers or convenient sources of nannies or back-up care. Disruptive eldercare challenges ranged from the need to travel out of town on a moment’s notice to deal with a sudden hospitalization to their immersion in medical and legal processes that ran the gamut from home foreclosures to interviewing nursing homes.
Genuine, deep and sustained flexibility moved from desirable to essential
The sandwich generation had long transitioned from the stereotype of women working for “pin money” to their becoming critical breadwinners for their young families. Just as they were ending their footing and a tolerable level of “balance” in these new roles, their time and income became the foundation for the security of both their children and parents. Without serious give in the system, the stretch became impossible.
The stories of working moms – and dads – from that period reject the full range of possibility and peril. Some supportive (and best practice) employers and creative employees were able to work through these challenging passages, raising thriving families and enabling their parents to enjoy healthy retirements. For many others, not so much. Difficult choices were made: people were forced to choose between work and family, between their careers and their parents. Careers were derailed and families paid the price.
And then came the Great Recession. Issues of work-life balance, of enhanced flexibility, of the continuing sandwich challenge faded into the background. Rather than continuing and deepening the breadth and depth of flexibility offerings and family supports, many employers abandoned the old. In a time of surplus labor, the driving power of recruitment and retention faded and the lofty goal of “balance” was left to each employee. So how is that playing out in 2018?
The ceaseless march of longevity adds burnt toast to the sandwich
“Average life expectancy” in the US in 1990 was 75. Nearly three decades later, the 2017 number seemed to have increased slightly to 78. But these modest numbers mask a deeper and more disruptive reality. In contrast to the 1990s, those who reach age 65 today are likely to live to age 85 or beyond – 20 to 25 years beyond the traditional retirement age. The model of 55/60/65 and out is breaking under the demographic strain.
In addition, the Great Recession had a profound impact on this aging cohort. They endured the decline of traditional pensions and saw their savings and personal wealth seriously reduced. Their resources decreased as challenges grew to their ability to work and to care for themselves and spouses. Many became increasingly dependent on their adult children.
Thus a new sandwich generation has come of age – an older group of parents, with children, their own living parents and often grandchildren in their circle of care. They face unprecedented demands on their income and their expanded caregiving time. The choice between staying employed and leaving the workforce to deal with time-consuming crises, even for a brief period, is unacceptable.
Robust flexibility, including creative phased retirement, define family-friendliness
And this older sandwich generation faces another peril: just as they need continuing employment, they face premature retirement from the mid-50s on. Surveys show that 60-70% of employees want to continue working beyond traditional retirement age and a majority wants the ability to have exible and phased retirement. Yet according to a recent SHRM study, fewer than 5% of employers offer such options formally. Given all this, the new sandwich generation risks becoming toasted.
In this era of longer lives, under-resourced retirements, and the potential and demand for intensified caregiving and greater scheduling flexibility, it is time for employers to re-examine the strength of their flexibility initiatives and in particular, their practices toward older workers. Just as most companies have mainstreamed various forms of work- at-home, it is time to make flexible and phased retirement a best practice for all employers.
Just tuning in? Read our first dialogue on Age Discrimination HERE.