Future of Children Policy Brief

Work-Family Conflict: Look to Employers and Communities for Solutions

Most American parents are under severe time pressure because they need to work while simultaneously caring for their children and, increasingly, for elderly family members as well. Government mandates on businesses to provide workplace flexibility for employees to relieve some of this pressure are minimal to nonexistent, and most parents do not qualify for government child care programs. Unprecedented government budget strains make it unlikely that legislative bodies will provide relief in the foreseeable future. The best hope for struggling working parents lies in voluntary provision of workplace flexibility by employers and more support from community institutions.

Three demographic forces are putting intense pressure on America’s working families:

  • the continuing entry of mothers into the labor force complicates families’ efforts to care for their children;
     
  • high divorce rates and historically high and rising nonmarital birth rates intensify time pressures on working single parents; and
     
  • the unprecedented increase in the elderly population poses challenges for working families who need to care for older relatives.
Because women work to create a career, to maintain a middle-class lifestyle, or to avoid poverty, most mothers want to work or believe they must work. Although the rise in maternal employment may have slowed or even plateaued in recent years, it is unlikely to be reversed. Similarly, despite strong evidence that children fare better in stable married-couple families and that work-family challenges are reduced (but not eliminated) when two parents are available, the decline in marriage and rise in single parenthood are unlikely to be reversed anytime soon. Nor does the rise in longevity appear to be a short-term trend.

These three demographic changes, intertwined with the movement for gender equality and the imperative of women’s work, have all but eclipsed the once traditional view of males as breadwinners and females as homemakers. Women still spend more time than men keeping house and tending children, but the division of responsibility both inside and outside the home is becoming more equal and seems likely to continue moving in that direction. Work-family tension promises to be a permanent feature of American family life, one that affects men as well as women.