For generations, our country has been free-riding on families. Our economy is built on the invisible and free labor of millions--many of them women--who provide essential care to their families, whether it is the education and socialization of the next generation of workers or the comfort and care of the elderly. We have taken for granted that women will shoulder the lion's share of unpaid care work, even as they dedicate increasingly more hours to paid work. Although 70% of children are growing up in families headed by either a single working parent or two working parents, our workplace policies and laws still operate on the assumption that families have someone available at home to handle caregiving and other domestic responsibilities.
Much like the natural resources of the earth, we have relied on the resource of family care without fully recognizing its value, often going so far as to penalize those who provide it. But we are reaching a demographic tipping point that may force long overdue change to our nation's outmoded expectations about women and care work. For the first time in U.S. history, women make up half of the workforce and mothers are the primary or co-breadwinners in nearly two thirds of American families. Women also are earning a greater proportion of college and advanced degrees than men and a recent Pew Research Center study reveals women are increasingly likely to marry men who have lower education and income levels than they do.
What does all of this mean for American families? And what implications does it have for American law and policy?
In 1989, Arlie Russell Hochschild observed that Americans were living in the middle of a "stalled revolution," one that had ushered women into the workforce without ushering in any corresponding changes to the workplace or division of labor at home. Twenty years later, the revolution remains stubbornly stalled. However, as the demographics of the workforce continue to change, and the economics of marriage change along with them, families will have to renegotiate gender-based roles that have saddled women with the bulk of the domestic work. As families rely on women for income, women will need to rely on their families to share the domestic work. Where women used to prioritize marrying men who earn more than they, today 87% of women say it's more important to have a man who can communicate well, be intimate, and who will share in the housework.
The time crunch between care work and paying work is not simply a problem for families to solve on their own. Making it possible for workers to raise the next generation and care for the older one is an investment that benefits us all. Yet for a country whose politicians tout family values, the United States has done little to confront the costs of caregiving and support the critical work that families provide. The United States, along with Liberia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Sierra Leone and Swaziland, is one of only six countries out of 183 surveyed that does not guarantee leave with income to women when they have a baby. Similarly, unlike 163 other countries worldwide the U.S. does not guarantee a single day of paid sick leave for workers to use to care for their own or a family member's short or long-term illness. Part-time workers, many of them women with caregiving responsibilities, are routinely excluded from our labor and employment laws and are paid 20% less per hour, on average, than other workers with the same level of education and experience. Pernicious stereotypes about caregiving continue to hinder women's advancement in the workplace and fear of negative stigma prevents a majority of employees who want flexible work arrangements from asking for them.
The stalled revolution is long overdue for recharging. We have been operating under workplace norms and laws developed over 50 years ago when a different workforce model and a different family model prevailed. We need to change our laws and policies to correct the embedded biases against families that prevent workers from realizing their full potential both at work and at home. We need reforms such as paid family leave and paid sick days, stigma-free workplace flexibility that includes time off for parental involvement in children's education, and updated discrimination laws that prohibit unfair treatment based on family responsibilities and require parity for part-time workers. All of these would provide meaningful, immediate support to families who are struggling to both provide and care for their loved ones. By implementing such reforms (which are described in more detail here) we can finally stop free-riding on families and start valuing their unsung and indispensable work.
A Peaceful Revolution is a blog about innovative ideas to strengthen America's families through public policies, business practices, and cultural change. Done in collaboration with MomsRising.org, read a new post here each week.