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3 - work and family

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Stress and the tension between work and family are increasing. Major changes in American families—and the lack of corresponding changes in many workplace policies and practices—are the causes. Balancing work and family responsibilities, particularly the responsibilities of child and elder care, will remain issues in the workplace of the future, touching each of us at some point in our work lives, whether in the role of parent, spouse, or caregiver to our own aging parents.


Managing a household and a family is an important and time-consuming job. Adult workers, especially parents of at-home children, have always had family responsibilities that have at times conflicted with workplace demands. However, two factors—more families with both parents in the workforce and more one-parent families—have increased the opportunity for conflict between family and work. Perhaps the most important factor increasing the tension between work and family is the increased number of women in the workforce.1 The increase in the proportion of women working or looking for work that began after World War II has been one of the most significant social and economic trends in modern U.S. history.2In 1940, 28 percent of American women were in the workforce.3 This rose to 40 percent in 1966, 51 percent in 1979, and 60 percent in 1998. In 1940, one in four workers was a woman;4 by 1998, almost one in two workers was. (See chart 3.1.) Today, husbands are the sole worker in fewer than one-quarter of married-couple families.5

Researchers have suggested that wives have entered the workforce largely in response to women’s rising labor market opportunities, not in response to declining employment opportunities for their husbands.6 Other factors in the increased participation of women likely include the need for a second income to keep up with the rising cost of living, the changed attitudes about a woman’s role in the family, and reduced workplace discrimination against women.7

The rapid increase in women’s labor force participation slowed in the 1990s and is not expected to continue into the future. The slowdown was caused partly by a decline in participation among young women who stayed in school longer and partly by the longterm slowdown in growth in participation among women in the prime working-age group.8 (See chart 3.2.)

This slower rate of growth will continue between 1996 and 2006, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projections. However, growth in labor force participation will be notice-able among 45-to-64-year-olds who will be more likely to work than were middle-aged women in the past.9

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Women as a growing percentage of the workforce, 1948-1998
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More women are working:labor force participation rates, 1948-1998

Because an increasing proportion of women work, their earnings have become more important to family income. In fact, the percentage of dual-earner couples in which wives earned more than husbands increased from 16 percent in 1981 to 23 percent in 1997.10 Almost one in four wives now earns more than her husband, a proportion likely to increase in the future as more women break through the "glass ceiling" to the executive suite, move into higher-paying occupations, and devote a larger percentage of their adult lives to work.


Working mothers

The increasing number of mothers in the work-force has created time conflicts for many families. Families are trying to find alternative ways to do the work traditionally done by the stay-at-home Mom. Some is done by other family members, some is bought from third parties (daycare workers, housekeepers, take-out restaurants, accountants, and the like), and some is simply left undone.

The proportion of working mothers with children under six rose even faster than the proportion of all women in the workforce. In 1998, almost three out of four women with children were in the workforce (see chart 3.3.), though growth in the percentage of mothers-with-young-children who worked had begun leveling off in the early 1990s, as did the growth for all women.

Between 1969 and 1996, the number of working married women with children increased by 84 percent. By 1998, two-thirds of all mothers in married-couple families were employed.11

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How long is a mother's workday?

The number of working mothers has increased for varied reasons. More women today may return to work after having children because they were firmly established in the workforce before childbirth.12 Women with employer-pro-vided leave are also more likely to return to work after childbirth, as are women whose income is a substantial portion of total family income. And mothers are more likely to return if they have spousal support, work part-time, or have other "flexibility benefits" like telecommuting, the ability to avoid overtime hours, and supervisor and coworker support.13

Single parents

Single parents who work not only face the challenge of raising children without the assistance of another parent in the home, but they usually must do so with much less income than a two-parent family. Working single parents often face both a "time crunch" and a "money crunch."

The number of single-parent families, especially those headed by women, has increased significantly since the 1960s. In fact, the proportion of single-parent families has more than doubled over the last 30 years, up from 11 percent in 1970 to 27 percent of family households with children today.14

The percent of single mothers15 with children under 18 who work increased from 53 percent in 1969 to 66 percent in 1996.16 About three of every five mothers with children under age six are employed. Over the last 23 years, the percent of mothers employed with spouses present grew more rapidly than the percent of single mothers employed.17

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Proportion of mothers in the workforce, by age of child, 1975 and 1998

In recent years, the growth in households headed by single fathers outpaced the growth in those households headed by single mothers, but men still make up only one in six single parents. Single fathers grew from 1.7 million in 1995 to 2.1 million in 1998. There is likely to be a continued increase in the number of custodial fathers as gender equality increases.


Many workers must care for dependents other than children. About 7.3 million Americans age 15 and over, or 4 percent of the population residing in households, have difficulty performing one or more of the following activities: bathing, dressing, eating, using the toilet, and getting into or out of a bed or chair. More than half of this population requires the assistance of another person to perform these activities. Family members are the primary source of such assistance. Spouses are the most common providers (38 percent), followed by daughters (19 percent), other relatives (12 percent), and sons (8 percent). Only 9 percent of those needing assistance use paid providers.18

In 1996, 22.4 million U.S. households (almost 20 percent) provided informal care to a relative or friend age 50 or older, or had done so in the previous year. Employers report an increase in the number of requests for time off to care for aging parents. For example, at State Street Corporation in Boston, unpaid time off for elder care now accounts for 15 percent of all leave requests, up from 8 percent 2 years ago. In 1998 at BankBoston, 50 percent of extended family leave involved care of elderly relatives.19

In 1996, more than 4 million households spent at least 40 hours a week in caregiving for the elderly; 1.6 million spent 20 to 40 hours a week.20 Nearly 2 out of 3 family caregivers are working, 52 percent full time and 12 percent part time.

Because almost three-quarters of current caregivers are women, any rise in family caregiving will likely have a greater impact on women in the workforce than on men. Many caregivers must also balance the demands of marriage and parenting with care-giving. Sixty-six percent of caregivers are married, while more than 41 percent have one or more children under age 18 living in their households.21

The Families and Work Institute estimates that about 42 percent of workers will provide some form of elder care by 2002.22 BLS projects the growth rate of 65-to-74-year-olds in the civilian noninstitutional population to decrease and of those 75 and over to increase in the next 5 or 6 years. However, over the longer term, the ratio of those 65 and older to those likely to be in the workforce is expected to increase significantly, placing more demands on the working caregivers of the elderly.

The need for family caregiving may have pro-found implications for the future. A 1997 study estimated the aggregate cost of caregiving in lost production to U.S. business—absenteeism, costs of hiring replacements for those forced to leave because of caregiving responsibilities, workday interruptions, and employee health and mental care—at $11.4 billion per year. Workers have had to modify their worklives to meet the demands of caregiving. While only six percent of workers pro-viding care report having to give up work entirely as a result of caregiving, more than half have had to make changes at work, such as leaving early, going in late, changing to part time, or taking time off during the day to accommodate caregiving.23


The need for affordable child care and elder care constrains some adults from entering the workforce. For others, however, it creates jobs. (See chapter 4, Workplaces, on growth in the services sector.) An estimated 10 to 20 percent of nonworking mothers with young children do not seek employment because child care is not available or affordable. In addition, about 20 to 25 percent of employed mothers would work longer hours if they did not have childcare constraints.24

In the fall of 1994, only about six percent of preschool children were cared for by their mothers in the workplace or while their mothers worked at home. Forty-three percent received primary care from relatives other than their mothers, and about 29 percent went to an organized facility such as a daycare center. The number of children cared for in organized facilities has increased by five percentage points since 1987. Poor families, those receiving government assistance, and mothers who work part time or on shifts other than day shifts rely more on relatives for child care (over 50 percent).25

Childcare problems do not end once children are in first grade. In some ways, these problems become more difficult because part-day child care is needed and it can be harder to arrange than full-day child care. Using the most generous calculations, only about 64 percent of a full-time worker’s standard work schedule is covered by the hours children are typically in school.26

Nonstandard hours

To the extent that parents, especially single parents, work nonstandard hours, there is an increased need for child care around the clock. Nonstandard-hour and -day child care are usually more expensive and less readily available. On the other hand, some parents choose to work non-standard hours because that is when family caregivers are available.

Less-educated mothers are more likely to work a nonstandard schedule than are other women, largely because of the occupations in which they work, such as cashiers, nursing aides, and waitresses. These occupations are likely to grow in the future. Women with preschool children are more likely to work nonstandard hours than women without children or women with older children. One-third of mothers of young children who work nonstandard hours report that the major reason they work those hours is to accommodate child care, likely by the father or other family member.27 About 38 percent of all women cite child care or the care of other family members as reasons for working nonstandard hours.28

Employer-provided assistance

The childcare needs of working families are some-times addressed in the workplace. Employer-provided childcare assistance includes dependent-care assistance plans, direct subsidies and vouchers, arranging employee discounts at daycare centers, resource and referral systems, and flexible schedules. Typically, firms in finance, insurance, and real estate service provide the most childcare assistance, and larger companies provide more than smaller ones.29

A 1997 study found that four times as many companies offered low-cost childcare assistance, such as access to information (36 percent), as offered onsite or nearby care facilities (9 percent). Few employers reimbursed childcare costs when employees traveled or had to stay late. The only widespread childcare benefit offered by firms (50 percent) was dependent-care assistance plans that enable parents to pay for child care with pretax dollars.30

A 1996 survey of 1,050 major employers of salaried employees found that nearly one-third offered eldercare programs—an increase of 17 percent over 1991—though most assistance was in the form of resource and referral programs.31

In an era of two-income families, flexibility—whether that means flexible start and stop times, working from home, or part time—is increasingly important to the American worker. 32

Shelley Donald Coolidige,
The Christian Science Monitor,
May 3, 1999.

Unions and management sometimes negotiate for extensive childcare services as part of collective bargaining. For example, the Western New York Family Care Consortium was established in 1996 when United Auto Workers members in the Buffalo area talked with General Motors management about problems in finding quality child care that fit their scheduling needs. Other employers joined the initiative, which in 1998 had an employee base of over 13,000 area workers. Consortium services include: before- and after-school care at three sites; an extended-hours childcare center near the worksite for children 6 weeks to 12 years old, which meets the needs of second-shift workers by staying open until 2:00 a.m.; and an emergency backup telephone network to connect parents with providers when their usual childcare arrangements are disrupted.33

1 “Workforce” includes women who are employed and women who are unemployed and looking for work.

2 Howard V. Hayghe, “Developments in Women’s Labor Force Participation,” Monthly Labor Review, September 1997, p. 41.

3 Kristin E. Smith and Amara Bachu, “Women’s Labor Force Attachment Patterns and Maternity Leave: A Review of Literature,” U.S. Bureau of Census, Population Division Working Paper No. 32, January 1999, p. 1.

4 Smith and Bachu, p. 6.

5 U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, press release, “Employment Characteristics of Families in 1998,”, May 25, 1999.

6 Anne E. Winkler, “Earnings of Husbands and Wives in Dual-Earner Families,” Monthly Labor Review, April 1998, p. 42.

7 Council of Economic Advisors (CEA), Families and the Labor Market, 1969-99: Analyzing the “Time Crunch,” May 1999, p. 6.

8 Hayghe, pp. 42, 45.

9 Howard Fullerton, “Labor Force 2006: Slowing Down and Changing Composition,” Monthly Labor Review, November 1997, pp. 23-38.

10 Winkler, p.42.

11 Hayghe, p. 42 and BLS Press Release, “Employment Characteristics of Families in 1998,”, May 25, 1999.

12 Hayghe, p. 43.

13 Smith and Bachu, p. 2.

14 U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau Report, “Growth in Single Fathers Outpaces Growth in Single Mothers,”, December 11, 1998.

15 Single women are considered those “without a spouse present.”

16 CEA, p. 4.

17 The percent of mothers of children under age six, with a spouse present, who were employed increased from 32 percent in 1975 to 61 percent in 1998. The corresponding percentages for mothers without a spouse in the house-hold were 42 and 59 percent. Goodman, p. 5.

18 Joe Kennedy, Mitchell P. LaPlante, and H. Stephen Kaye, “Need for Assistance in the Activities of Daily Living,” Disability Statistics Abstract, Number 18, June 1997, p. 1.

19 Diane E. Lewis, “Caring for a parent often exacts a toll on job,” Boston Sunday Globe, May 2, 1999, p. C-1.

20 U.S. Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau, “Work and ElderCare: Facts for Caregivers and their Employers,”

21 The MetLife Study of Employer Costs for Working Caregivers, Metlife Mature Market Group, Westport, CT, June 1997, p. 9.

22 Ellen Galinsky and James T. Bond, The 1998 Business Worklife Study, New York: Families and Work Institute, 1998, p.48.

23 Metlife pp. 7, 33.

24 Harriet B. Presser and Amy G. Cox, “The Work Schedules of Low-Educated American Women and Welfare Reform,” Monthly Labor Review, April 1997, p. 26.

25 Fathers are the caregivers for their children 18 percent of the time; grandparents — 16 percent; other relatives — 9 percent. U.S. Bureau of Census press release, “While Moms Work, Dads or Other Relatives Care for 4 in 10 Preschoolers,”

26 This assumes a mandated 182 days of school x 7 hours a day=1274 hours versus work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for 50 weeks. This estimate does not consider child’s sickness nor does it consider travel time to work.

27 Presser and Cox, p. 26.

28 Presser and Cox, p. 28.

29 Galinsky and Bond, p. 47.

30 Galinsky and Bond, p. V.

31 U.S. Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau, “Work and Elder Care: Facts for Caregivers and their Employers,”

32 Shelley Donald Coolidge, “Stretching the Rules,” The Christian Science Monitor, May 3, 1999.

33 U.S. Department of Treasury, “Investing in Child Care: Challenges Facing Working Parents and the Private Sector Response,” 1998, pp. 20-21.

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