Election '16: Work-Life Issues Have Finally Taken Center Stage

Once upon a time, phrases like maternity leave and work-life balance were relegated to the women’s pages of newspapers. But the narrative surrounding work-life issues—including paid family and sick leave, affordable childcare, and flexible and predictable work schedules—is undergoing a radical shift. As the needs of American families become a growing concern to politicians, economists, business owners, and most of all, American families, these former "women’s issues" are becoming a focal point in maintaining and growing our economic prosperity.

In her new book Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict, economist Heather Boushey argues that tending to the needs of families is actually critical to our economic health.

“These issues are important because they’re inseparable from the rest of what we spend all of our time doing,” explains Boushey. “There’s still this idea in many workplaces that people drop off their family and life baggage at the entrance to the office and pick it back up when they leave for the day. That’s not the case and hasn’t been the case for decades now that women have gained access to employment opportunities in the American economy writ large.”

“Instead of fighting this new reality, we should adapt to it like nearly every other country,” says Boushey. “We’re kneecapping our economy’s potential because instead of supporting people when they have to take care of a sick parent, or take care of themselves, or decide to have a child, we’re forcing them out of their jobs and out of the workforce.”

As Boushey details in her book, our current worker protections, including Social Security, the National Labor Standards Act, and the Fair Labor Relations Act, were formulated by Labor Secretary Frances Perkins and President Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of the 1930s New Deal. They were designed for what was then the typical American middle- or working-class family, with a single wage-earner supporting an entire family and an at-home caregiver to tend the domestic fires. Such policies were revolutionary back then and provide a solid backbone to build on now. But they are clearly no longer enough.

The modern family looks nothing like it did 80 years ago. The bulk of families are either two-parent, two-income or single-parent single-income, with only one-third of today’s children age 14 and under living in a family with a full-time, stay-at-home caregiver. What is today’s typical family? We have married, together but not married, divorced, single by choice, single by circumstances, step-families, multi-generational families, same-sex couples, all in multiple permutations. Policies need to stretch broader and run deeper.

It is not news that for years virtually every other advanced economy in the world has provided its citizens with far more generous social policies when it comes to paid leave, childcare, and other family-friendly issues. But now we do not even have to look across the ocean for examples regarding how such policies might unfold in the United States.

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and even Marco Rubio put forward detailed plans for instituting paid family leave, which is unprecedented in a presidential campaign. Four states have now mandated paid family and medical leave—California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and most recently New York—and Washington State has passed but not yet implemented a stand-alone paid parental leave program. Five states and 26 cities have mandated paid sick days, and San Francisco just became the first U.S. city to approve six weeks of fully paid parental leave. High-profile companies like Amazon, Google, Netflix and Apple proudly flaunt their generous paid leave policies.

“We have a unique opportunity to push for change,” offers Julie Kashen, senior policy adviser for the Make it Work Campaign, a three-year education campaign formed to get work-life policies into the public discussion in the run up to the presidential election. Kashen cites significant grassroots victories in cities and states, momentum in Congress and attention from mainstream figures on up to President Obama as evidence of a shifting and more hospitable landscape around the country. “We wanted to seize a narrow window of opportunity that exists right now: the opportunity to make economic security for women and families the defining issue of this presidential election cycle.”

High-profile think tanks are rallying around work-life issues as well. In 2015, the Center for American Progress released a detailed report, Administering Paid Family and Medical Leave: Learning from International and Domestic Examples, outlining several plans for implementing a national paid family leave program. Sarah Jane Glynn, the CAP director of women’s dconomic policy who authored the report, attributes the heightened attention to these issues to a confluence of factors including decades of groundwork laid by dedicated advocates and the economic recession and tepid recovery, resulting in a lack of faith that the market can do everything on its own. “There has been this very public recognition that there is a place for government intervention,” says Glynn, “when it is something families really need.”

The New American Foundation recently launched a work-family focused program called the Better Life Lab, dedicated to finding and highlighting policy solutions that better fit the way people—male and female—work and live today. Former Washington Post columnist Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, is director of the program.

“We’re at an exciting moment,” explains Schulte, “because it really does feel like we’re beginning to shift out of the 'be nice to women' view to understanding how the way we’ve structured our work is so outdated and out of sync with our modern lives that it’s doing real damage—to families, to communities and to business’ bottom lines. We’re finally getting good and compelling data that shows how policies, structures and practices that support the whole person, men and women—caring for themselves, their families and doing meaningful, productive work—actually produces better work and better workers.”

Granted there is a long way yet to travel, but the signal flags are flying. Work-life issues are no longer discounted as softer “women’s” concerns. They may very well be the breakout issues of the presidential campaign and form a cornerstone of domestic policy in future administrations.

Maybe the public—and our elected officials—finally see that a healthy domestic policy that treats workers well, acknowledges they have families and responsibilities off the job and accommodates those life needs, makes for a healthy economy, a productive nation and a true world power. Stay tuned.

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