06/17/2012 10:30 am ET Updated Aug 17, 2012

Why We All Need Working Parents

Twenty-six years ago, I graduated from Harvard Law School five months pregnant. After graduation, I clerked for a federal judge for a year and then applied to some of the big law firms in New York. The interviews would go well -- until I would tell them I had a 10-month-old toddler at home. Then, the interviews would stop. After three months of trying, I didn't have a single job offer.

Why did I tell the big firms that I had a 10-month-old at home, you might ask? My answer is simple: I was looking for the kind of workplace where I could be both the lawyer and the parent I wanted to be. It just never occurred to me that not a single large law firm would think that was achievable. I did not fit their profile of the ideal worker.

That experience shapes my work in the field of diversity and inclusion, including work/life integration. These issues are deeply personal -- to me, and to the millions who struggle to provide both financially and emotionally for their families. But now more than ever, the stakes are not just personal. In fact, the future of our country depends on all of us understanding that the ideal worker for the 21st century is a working parent.

Why do I say this? Because demographics is destiny.

Until about 2000, fertility rates declined as more women worked outside the home. But starting in 2000, fertility rates started to rise with women's labor force participation.

To quote the 2007 Goldman Sachs report, "Gender Inequality, Growth and Global Aging,"

... women in many countries have a choice of either working or having children. Faced with such a choice, fertility and employment rates both suffer. By contrast, in the countries where it is relatively easy to work and have children, female employment and fertility both tend to be higher.

In other words, when public policy supports working parents, men and women contribute to the economy both by working and by raising the next generation of workers. This is important for economic growth, a sustainable retirement system, and strong and secure families.

Let's take economic growth first. According to a McKinsey report, "Women Matter," the United States' GDP would be 25 percent smaller if women hadn't started entering the workforce in the late 1970s. Goldman Sachs has calculated that if women worked at the same rates as men, it would boost U.S. GDP by as much as 9 percent, Eurozone GDP by 13 percent and Japanese GDP by 16 percent.

This is because when women work for a paycheck, they spend that money. In fact, women are the biggest emerging market the world has ever seen. If you are a business looking for growth, you should want to encourage women -- 8 out of 10 of whom will become mothers -- to stay in the workplace.

Now let's turn to retirement. It's no coincidence that Spain and Japan have rapidly aging populations, a low number of women working for a paycheck, and among the lowest birth rates in the world. Beyond short term problems these countries have, the long term problem is that there are too few workers to sustain their retirement system as people age.

We in the United States could face this same demographic problem in the future. Although we have had relatively high birth rates and rates of women working for the last decade, both have stalled in recent years. In the meantime, an estimated 10,000 Baby Boomers retire every day. The aging workforce has been called a "demographic tsunami." We need more men and women to work and have families to avert long-term disaster. Public policy needs to recognize that working parents contribute to the long term viability of our retirement system, and provide support to allow them to work and have families.

But even if none of these economic benefits were true, I would argue that it is still the case that the ideal worker is a working parent, because... most of us already are both working and caring for a family member. It may not be a child, but an elderly parent or uncle, or sick sister or brother. In my experience, a workplace that is responsive to the needs of working parents is also one that is responsive to other caregiving needs. Decades of research by the Families and Work Institute shows that flexible work environments are just as, if not more, productive, and have lower health care and other costs than rigid workplaces. But perhaps even more importantly, the Institute's research has shown that families are stronger -- and less vulnerable to shifting economic tides -- when both parents provide for the family, both financially and emotionally.

To be sure, at the individual level, the issues around work and family will always feel deeply personal. The choices about whether to have kids at all, and whether to work full time or part time for a paycheck or not at all, are different for each one of us.

But that doesn't mean that there is no role for public policy to play in supporting working parents. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, introduced in Congress on May 8, is one such law. The Paid Family Leave Insurance Act, pending in New York State, is another. These laws reflect the new demographics of work and family -- which clearly show that supporting working parents is better for everyone. So instead of recognizing the contributions mothers and fathers make with one-day holidays in May and June, write your elected officials and tell them to vote for these bills. Because we need mothers and fathers working, for all our sakes.