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Milton Ezrati Headshot

Come Acourting

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If women these days are being told to "lean in" and become more aggressive about their careers, they may not have to try so hard in the future. Coming years will see business, industry, government, employers generally have greater difficulties securing skilled workers, regardless of gender. They will pay a premium wage to lure them. Gender wage differentials should narrow or disappear altogether, even without the help of courts or government regulation. Employers will eagerly make other accommodations for women.

The magic elixir that will conjure this transformation is the nation's aging demographics. Decades of low birth rates have slowed the flow of young people into the workforce just as the aging baby boom has begun to swell the population of dependent retirees. The nation, according to the Census Bureau, will see the number of working-age people available to support each retiree fall from 5.2 today to barely 3.0 by 2030. Employers - government, private, large companies and small - will compete for this relatively small group of trained, disciplined workers, offering higher wages and altering policy as well as workplace practice to suit particular needs of each group of workers. Immigration reform will take on different contours from today's debate in order to bring the most talented workers into the country. Firms will offer more flexible hours to keep older workers out of retirement and on the job longer. They will also show more flexibility in meeting women's needs.

There certainly is a potential reward to accommodating women's needs. Despite the great strides of second-wave feminism, the Labor Department reports that only 70 percent of working-age women today pursue gainful employment. That compares with almost 90 percent for men. An increase in women's participation just half way to the male rate would increase the nation's available workforce by some 8.0 percent, not enough to answer all the needs created by the nation's demographic predicament but a significant mitigator nonetheless. And there is every reason to expect participation to rise as a natural response to pay increases and the disappearance of gender-based pay differentials. Government and business will doubtless offer further inducements in the circumstance by helping increasingly with child care, an obligation that, for all the fashion of helpful fathers, still falls mostly to women and that no doubt explains the current differences between women's and men's workforce participation rates.

In this area, business and government have a number of avenues to pursue. There is every reason to expect government to step up tax breaks for both the providers of child care and for those who buy the services, either individuals, families, or employers. Part of the push might also involve universal licensing and inspections, to give parents peace of mind that they do not now always have today. Work rules will also change. To lure scarce workers, employers increasingly will allow release time for parents to ferry children from schools to other supervised activities. They will even offer on-site child care, especially in factories and office campuses where thousands of workers gather each day. Some may be full-time facilities, some less complete arrangements to help parents cope with after-school needs and school holidays. Indeed, several large employers have already begun to provide onsite child care facilities of one sort or another. It is also conceivable that authorities, under pressure from both parents and employers, will allow children to enroll in schools closer to a parent's workplace than to home. This is not so farfetched as it might sound. Already, several employers in need of staff have set up nearby charter schools to lure workers by offering a good education for their children, probably cheaper for the employer than luring workers with a premium wage.

Whatever the exact configurations of the accommodations, it is apparent that the unfolding demographic pressure will make the workplace more welcoming and rewarding for women. The change will come less out of some sudden liberal enlightenment in the executive suite than from its own selfish need for skilled, reliable staff. But the change will come nonetheless, perhaps more securely this way. In time, such accommodations - greater flexibility on hours, change in the nature of compensation, a more family-friendly milieu - should alter the basic nature of the workplace. Women will have less need to "lean in" quite so far for the sake of their career. To repurpose an old-fashioned phrase, with a less than politically correct heritage, employers, government and corporate, will simply "come acourting."