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When Meryl Streep and McKinsey agree

05/14/2015 06:15 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2016
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When Meryl Streep and McKinsey agree, you know you're onto something huge. Last week, PBS aired a new special, Caring for Mom and Dad, narrated by Meryl Streep. Then, McKinsey Global Institute is releasing a new book, No Ordinary Disruption: The Four Global Forces Breaking All the Trends, of which "aging" is one. Even if neither noticed the S&P declaration five years ago in their 2010 Population Aging report -- "No other force is likely to shape the future of national economic health, public finances, and policymaking as the irreversible rate at which the world's population is aging" -- the evidence is mounting as we inexorably march to 2020 when for the first time in history there will be more old than young.

Moreover, as compelling as the impact of population aging is on the macroeconomic future of nations, Meryl is bringing into the open the even greater impact on families and their caregiving needs. As we live longer, we are going to need more caregivers than is currently imaginable. This need explodes even more dramatically as we continue the parallel path of de-population -- stunningly low birth rates that have consequences for the proportion of old to young in society.

But the caregiving burden is not only about families or nations, it is the most consequential trend affecting employers -- big and small -- as worker productivity hangs in the balance. Caregiving across America and the world is today reaching into every employer as more and more of their employees have to attend to the challenges of elder caregiving.

A mom's fall or a dad's 2 a.m. unwanted wandering occurs as their caregiver children try to work and lead regular lives. Those who begin to recognize and address this are going to be the ones that gain a competitive advantage in the coming decades in the form of attracting and retaining the best employees and realizing productivity gains across their workforces.

As a society, we've been down this road before. By the '80s, when the women's movement had begun to hit its stride and forcing real structural changes to social and economic spheres, a new tension arose: How to tend to both work and children.

The real breakthrough came when employers realized they had a role to play -- and a competitive advantage to seize by "owning" the childcare issue. To attract and retain talent, and to improve productivity, they created policies and programs that enabled parents to balance work with parenthood. From onsite childcare to programs for maternity and paternity leave, workplaces responded to the needs of new parenthood.

Are we now in a similar situation for eldercare?

The data show just how big of a deal this is:

  • 44 million unpaid elder caregivers in the U.S.

  • 75% are employed
  • 58% are women
  • One-third care for someone over 85
  • And there is increasing evidence that elder caregiving can be a drag on business:

    • $34 billion annual cost of lost productivity due to caregiving

  • 6.6 days of work missed per year due to caregiving
  • 24% of employees are prevented from working more due to caregiving duties
  • And these numbers are, one can only imagine, way underreported, for who among us would openly admit not doing their job? This data is most likely only the tip of the iceberg. And yet its occurring across all work environments, literally, globally.

    So, just as business played a leadership role in normalizing and standardizing childcare -- and, in turn, unlocking the economic potential of American women -- it is time to do the same for eldercare as one of the relatively unnoticed, but huge opportunities in an emerging "silver economy."

    For business to step up to the challenge, there are three guiding insights:

    1. This is not an HR issue, but a C-Suite imperative: Elder caregiving needs to be recognized as the productivity issue that it is. The World Economic Forum is leading the way, as it has adopted a set of Guiding Principles for Age-Friendly Businesses, which outline how population aging can either hold back or accelerate business growth. To categorize elder caregiving as an HR issue is to misunderstand it profoundly. This is a P&L issue, plain and simple.

  • Employees need more information -- and help understanding it: Businesses need to curate information for employee caregivers. While some information is available through online searching, it can be hard to find and more difficult to assess and understand. A business would save its caregiver employees a massive headache and drain of time by becoming a trusted partner by both providing the right information and guiding employees through it.
  • Set up a network of preferred partners: Employers can partner with home-based care organizations to provide to employees "back up" or subsidized home-care services. Organizations like Home Instead Senior Care may prove to be ready partners for large organizations to think through new ways of supporting employee caregivers. The search for good home-care options can feel like the Wild West to caregivers, and the service of providing a network and a set of recommendations will go a long way to save time and ease anxiety. It's not surprising that companies like Bank of America Merrill Lynch are finding ways to address the needs of our aging population through 21st century financial planning that aligns with these kinds of exploding caregiver needs.
  • Employee caregiving is, at the moment, nothing more than a dirty little secret -- but it's also a secret that won't stay hidden for long. If businesses can lead, caregiving can become not an anchor on growth, but a sustainable competitive advantage. Surely, if Meryl Streep and the McKinsey brain trust are on the same path, others might want to take notice.