An American Agenda for
Working Families

By Kathleen E. Christensen, Consulting Research Scholar, Stanford Center on Longevity

Covid-19 has opened the eyes of the public to the challenges faced by working families. It has revealed what happens when an inadequate child care system fails even further and when schools, which for many U.S. families function as default child care systems, can’t operate, and parents must homeschool their children and take care of them 24/7. At the same time, the pandemic proved that work can be productively restructured beyond the rigid, one-size-fits-all 9 to 5 schedules in centralized workplaces. But it also showed there can be too much flexibility, with a blurring of boundaries between work and family and everything being done in one place. Essentially, the pandemic has given chase to the fallacy that homes, workplaces, and public policies can continue to function as if the traditional family structure still predominated.

The traditional breadwinner-homemaker family had two jobs and two adults. The husband had a full-time paid job in the world of work, while the wife had a full-time unpaid job — bringing up the children, developing ties with the community and handling domestic responsibilities — in the home. Over the last fifty years, the arithmetic of the family changed, as two-earner families predominated, resulting in two adults but three jobs – two paid, one unpaid – with women typically handling more than half of the unpaid domestic third job. By focusing only on the gender inequity, however, we lost sight of the fact that even if the unpaid job was split evenly, the workload was too high with each parent having 1.5 full-time jobs. Single-parent, single-earner working families fared even worse, with more demands on the sole adult.

The pandemic further changed the arithmetic of the family, creating crushing workloads for parents undertaking home schooling and 24/7 child care. As a result, since March 2020, these families have shouldered two paid jobs and two unpaid ones, with the demands of these four jobs outstripping the resources available from two adults.

With the spread of Covid-19, the workplace also changed, as employers rapidly pivoted to remote work and rejiggered schedules, demonstrating that the rigid 9-to-5 centralized workplaces of the past can be restructured with little to no cost to productivity or revenues. This confluence of changing family arithmetic and workplace structures creates a significant moment to think about how, in our post-pandemic world, we can provide necessary resources to support American families in their paid and unpaid jobs.

Now is the time to forge an American Agenda for Working Families. No parent should have to choose between their paid job and their family. Some will need to spend more time on paid work and will, therefore, need to outsource many aspects of their home jobs. Others will want to spend more time on family and will therefore need to restructure their paid jobs.  This is especially likely for families with young children, who are among the most stressed. Invariably, many working parents will want one thing at one time in their lives and something else at other times. The American Agenda needs to account for the differing needs of working parents.

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The norms of the ideal worker have certainly been challenged during Covid-19, as is clear on Zoom calls when toddlers interrupt, dogs bark, and door bells ring. No one can now ignore that workers have full lives outside of work.

Agenda for Outsourcing Unpaid Domestic Jobs

Despite the old adage that on a death bed no one ever says they wished they’d spent more time at work, the reality is that most adults need paying jobs. For those with dependent care and household responsibilities, the challenges are significant. A social and economic infrastructure of three interlocking efforts must be built, enabling working parents to outsource, when needed, care and domestic responsibilities.

Create a comprehensive, national policy for care across the lifespan that includes a publicly-funded, integrated network of 24-hour care centers for children and frail, older Americans. Until the pandemic, public schools were the closest thing that the U.S. had to a care system for children, even though this was inadequate, because schools provided care for just a limited number of hours a day, couldn’t handle unpredictable school or work schedules, and only served school-age children (Christensen, Schneider and Butler, 2011). With the onset of the pandemic, even that flawed system collapsed, as did private-sector day care centers for pre-school aged children and for sick, frail or lonely elderly family members.

If ever a time existed to address the fundamental care needs of our citizenry, now is it. But it won’t be easy. Until President Biden’s recently proposed American Jobs Plan was put forward, the last major effort to create a comprehensive day care system was the 1972 Comprehensive Child Development Bill, which then-President Richard Nixon vetoed. While many remain hopeful that the proposed federal investments in caregiving infrastructure in the President’s Plan come to fruition, it is too early to know what the results will be. In the interim, creative approaches, particularly regarding funding, are required.

Forge public-private partnerships for child care, in which employers at a local or regional scale contribute to providing or paying for child care. The only reason most parents outsource caregiving is because the demands of their jobs require them to do so. Their employers, therefore, can play a vital role in formulating large-scale solutions to our country’s care crisis. Employers are called on in other countries to play that role.

According to the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the World Bank, 26 countries out of 189 surveyed — including Brazil, India, and Turkey—have adopted policies that require employers to support childcare for their employees in one form or another. These forms include: “on-site childcare centers that are run by the employer or a third party; off- or near-site childcare centers sponsored by one or more companies, including in the communities where employees reside; childcare vouchers, subsidies, stipends, discounts, reserved seats, subscriptions to online care platforms such as Care.com and UrbanSitter.com; and back-up, after-hours, and sick child services.”

Table 1. Many countries have adopted policies that require employers to support childcare for their employees in one form or another. 


Companies employing at least 30 women over 16 years of age are required to have a place where children in the breastfeeding period can be cared for and supported.


Companies employing at least 20 women must provide a childcare area for children under two, pay the cost of care, or provide spaces in centers shared with other employers.


Companies employing at least 50 employees must provide workplace childcare.


Companies employing at least 50 employees must provide a workplace crèche (childcare center).


In 2018 Ireland enacted a legal requirement that all preschool childcare service providers adopt a child safeguarding policy that outlines the principles and procedures for how a child enrolled and participating in a specific program will be kept safe from harm.


Companies, regardless of the number of employees, are required to support work-life balance and the childcare needs of their employees.


Paraguay is one of 26 of 189 economies that requires employers to offer childcare support to employees. A series of legal instruments, starting with the country’s constitution, guarantees the rights of pregnant women, parents, and young children.


Companies employing at least 100 women must provide a lactation room close to the workplace (within 250 meters), and companies employing at least 150 women must provide a workplace crèche for children up to age six, or vouchers to pay for those services from certified childcare providers.

Source: International Finance Corporation, 2017

Stimulate private-market solutions so more of the domestic household work, such as grocery shopping, food preparation, cleaning, lawn work, minor repairs, or chauffeuring kids around, can be outsourced. In some ways, the private sector has already begun to respond to this need by offering online grocery shopping, online handyman bidding, or gardening services, but these services have not been systematically built as an infrastructure to reduce the demands on working families. They also have largely been available only to those with significant resources.  The challenge is what can be done to extend these services to moderate or low-income working families?

Agenda to Restructure Paid Jobs to Create More Time for Family

The rapid pivoting to remote work that occurred in the spring of 2020 was done to keep workers healthy and to limit the spread of the virus. But significant lessons have come out of those experiences, including that remote work, schedule flexibility, reduced hours or job sharing, could be widely implemented without detriment to the bottom line. To implement wide-spread flexibility, post pandemic, requires that we rethink the structure of work.

Normalize Flexibility so that it becomes the new normal of the workplace, not the exception to the rule as it pretty much was prior to the pandemic. Pre-Covid, flexibility was typically negotiated on an individual-by-individual basis, with the immediate manager/supervisor holding the decision-making power. There were two consequences of this arrangement: an uneven playing field and a stigma of deviancy.

Since immediate managers or supervisors typically decided who could and could not work flexibly, a very uneven playing field existed, pre-pandemic, as to who got flexibility and who didn’t. As a result, in most companies, those working flexibly were in the minority and often viewed as deviating from the norms of the ideal worker – the full-time worker, continuously available and assumed to have no responsibility for housework or child care.

The norms of the ideal worker have certainly been challenged during Covid-19, as is clear on Zoom calls when toddlers interrupt, dogs bark, and door bells ring. No one can now ignore that workers have full lives outside of work. But a critical question regarding post-pandemic times is whether flexibility will remain as widespread as it now.A few financial and health care firms in the U.S. have assumed an equal-access culture of flexibility in which employees possess the right to flexibility, supervisors/managers bear the responsibility for initiating annual conversations about it, and together they determine what kind of flexibility meets the needs of both employer and the employee. This approach has become known as manager-initiated, rather than employee-initiated, flexibility.

Many firms, however, may return to pre-pandemic practices, with employees making individual requests for flexible schedules, reduced hours or remote work. Rather than seeing these flexibility requests as the exception rather than the rule, the U.K. and Australia have adopted ‘right to request flexibility’ laws, as a way to level the field of who gets it and who doesn’t. These laws do not guarantee that a flexibility request will be approved, but they do guarantee no penalties for requesting it and the right to appeal if turned down, with the burden of proof of falling on employers. These laws have resulted in normalizing flexibility.

Rethinking Structure of Work. The pandemic has yielded critical lessons about the structure of work – at least for office workers. Workers are productive even when they are not seen. Workers can set their own schedules, even when they deviate from standard 9- to-5 schedules, and still get the work done. Workers can be creative, even when not clustered together in offices. Workers can work remotely on a full-time basis, particularly if they have manageable workload and establish boundaries between work and family.  Working under current Covid conditions can lead to ‘too much flexibility,’ if no spatial or temporal boundaries between work and family are established, leading some workers to the edge of burnout and others to exiting the labor force. Tragically, the latter has been the case for many women, who have been four times more likely than men to quit their jobs during the pandemic.

Given these lessons, how can work be restructured in a post-pandemic world? First, develop hybrid schedules in which people can regularly work in the office, as well as remotely. Second, recognize it is better to have an employee working a reduced schedule than losing him or her altogether. Third, consider doing away with the binary classification of full-time or part-time jobs– it is too stigmatizing. Treat a job as having certain modules of work that could sum to 2000 hours a year, which is now considered full-time. Identify which modules are essential and which ancillary and what percentage of a total job each module would require. A person applying for a job could opt for a combination of essential and ancillary tasks and have their hours total anywhere from 1000 to 2000. Finally, trust workers to know when, where and how to work to achieve the best results for their jobs, employers, families and themselves.

Extend Social Security eligibility to those partially or entirely out of the labor force due to caregiving responsibilities. A reduction in hours or an exit from a job for caregiving purposes not only results in foregone earnings, but also the loss of contributions to one’s Social Security account. This can be remedied.

Many European countries, including Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, and Canada, have adopted this approach. In the U.S., the Social Security Administration has analyzed these various schemes to provide caregiver credits and identified potential lessons for the U.S., with regard to design, administration and cost of such a program.


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