What is the biggest social change that occurred over the last several decades? (Are you really trying to answer?) Raise your hand if you said, "The large increase of mothers, especially mothers with young children, in the work force." (Okay--some other answers might be accepted as well. Judges' decisions are final.)
Although many people yearn for the "good old days" when moms greeted their kids after school with warm cookies and milk, this nostalgia is for a time that only existed for very few privileged children during a short blip in history that was immortalized in the tiny world of black and white television. The fictional world where "father always knew best" bore little resemblance to the real one, where real people come in colors, and problems cannot be solved in 30-minute time blocks.
Today, there are few middle class families that can afford home ownership, adequate health insurance or middle-class status on one salary, and even for those few families that can, most adults obtain substantial benefits from working, including enhanced self-esteem, positive spillover between work and home, and material benefits. Men's lives have also changed, with fathers, on average, doing more housework than their fathers did and assuming more child-care responsibilities, especially when their spouses are employed outside the home, with the net result that children in married families are spending the same amount of time with their parents as the last generation, but with a greater proportion spent with fathers. I add this last finding for those naysayers who only see doom and gloom for the American family.
The changing landscape of work-life interactions is not just for parents. Work-life issues are critical for the one in five of us who are predicted to have major responsibility for a frail or ill elderly relative in the next five years, and for other working adults who may have few biological relatives but care for neighbors and friends as family. The dual demands of work and life can be exhausting and confusing, with uncertain boundaries between the two as we check e-mail and voice mail during vacation, on weekends and in the evenings, and as we exercise, eat our meals and socialize at work.
Despite all of the changes in contemporary families and the workforce, there have been few societal attempts to realign the world of work with the realities of contemporary family life. The school day is still structured so that it ends hours before most parents return from work, and the summer breaks that were originally designed so that farm children could help with the planting, harvest and other farm chores have not been adjusted for the lives of urban and suburban children.
New models of work-life interaction provide returns-on-investments for employers and work policies that employees can use to manage their work and family obligations without having to choose between the two. For example, if employees are given some flexibility in their work hours, they can care for family members (e.g., meet with teachers or take an older parent to the doctor) without missing time from work. If workers have the option of working reduced hours or taking family-related leave without losing their jobs, there should be less worker turnover and fewer related costs, like training and headhunter fees, and there would likely be other tangible, though frequently overlooked benefits to the employer, such as increased loyalty, willingness to work harder to meet deadlines and even reduced health-care costs because of a reduction in stress-related illnesses. There are many possible ways that work-life and family-life can be made more compatible so that workers will experience less stress, and their work will not suffer.
As my main presidential initiative, I have assembled a superb multidisciplinary group of experts who are putting together a best-evidence database from which we are making empirically supported recommendations for policy-makers, employers and families. We are identifying key studies that support important conclusions and preparing different types of communications (brochures, media pieces, Web-based documents, radio announcements, newspaper editorials) as a way of bringing research findings to those who could be using them.
I sincerely thank the following people for generously providing their valuable time and expertise to this project (with more thanks and acknowledgments to come): Tammy Allen, Eileen Applebaum, Kathleen Christensen, Stephan Desrochers, Beth Donaghey, Carol Evans, Stew Friedman, Barbara Gault, Adele Gottfried, Leslie Hammer, Jody Heymann, E. Jeffrey Hill, Florence Kaslow, Gwendolyn Keita, Donna Klein, Karen Kornbluh, Sara Link, Dianne Maranto, Bruce McEwen, Pat Raskin, Heidi Riggio, Marguerite Sallee, Harvey Sterns, Sherylle Tan, Gail Thompson, Melba Vasquez and Sheldon Zedeck. We want our best evidence to be used to shape public and workplace policies and to inform family decisions.