Editor’s Note: The following essay is the seventh post in our week-long symposium on how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect family life.
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, many workers have traded in their corporate offices for a makeshift workspace at the kitchen table. It’s been an unexpected adjustment, but the new rhythms of teleworking point to a promising future for families—one where flexible work practices support parents and their children alike.
With millions of working parents becoming “remote employees” overnight, outdated workplace norms are being pushed aside. Child care options dwindled and employers had to shift their long-held expectations around work and family. Employers are realizing that their workers do not always need to be in the office to get their work done. And workers are finding that less time spent commuting means more time for personal and family needs.
Children stand to benefit the most from this shift. A majority of American parents with children work, most full-time. This is a dramatic shift from 50 years ago, when nearly half of two-parent households had a stay-at-home mom. Furthermore, almost a quarter of children today grow up with a single parent and no other adult in the home—another significant departure from the past—which concentrates all the responsibilities of working and parenting under one person.
It’s no secret that the workplace has been slow to adjust to these changing family dynamics. Studies find that American moms are uniquely stressed in our work-focused culture where family-friendly policies like flexible work schedules and paid parental leave are the exception, not the rule. And kids bear the burden, with almost 40% of full-time working moms and almost half of working dads saying they spend too little time with their children.
Of course, these challenges might be mitigated if one parent makes caregiving their primary job. But financial pressures prevent many households from making this choice. Even if this were possible, the majority of parents—including half of mothers—express a desire to work full-time. The fact of the matter is that most people want to contribute to a profession and raise a family. Telework can help make this possible.
According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, the most important aspect of early childhood development is having active and attentive parents (or other caregivers) around. In the absence of reliable and appropriate caregiver-child interactions, “the brain’s architecture does not form as expected, which can lead to disparities in learning and behavior.” If the current levels of flexibility around remote work persist even after this crisis passes, parents can better carve out time for their children, and perhaps be less stressed, even as they navigate a full work schedule.
We hope this pandemic ends soon and never repeats in our lifetime. But we welcome the changes it could bring to the workplace to offer more flexibility to parents in ways that will benefit children.
Workplace flexibility gives parents more options for child care, too. Child care costs are more than $10,000 per year for the average American family (which is on par with housing and college costs), and they are even higher for families with young children and those in certain high-cost areas. If working parents can adjust their work schedules to minimize child care needs, they could significantly cut down on their child care expenses.
Working remotely has long been a part of U.S. employment culture, but it is typically viewed as a perk rather than a way to achieve more productive and fulfilled workers. In 2004, 22% of wage and salary workers reported the ability to work from home. More than a decade later and with major technological advancements, the share today sits at only 29%, with one-quarter of workers working from home at least occasionally, and only 15% doing it exclusively. Unsurprisingly, those most likely to work from home are parents with children.
To be sure, the reality of certain jobs makes working remotely impossible for some (think, retail store managers, nurses, or hair stylists), though even here, there may be room for increased flexibility on the part of employers, like scheduling, telemedicine, and paid leave. But many employers and workers are realizing that remote work is not just doable, but beneficial and fulfilling to family life.
We hope this pandemic ends soon and never repeats in our lifetime. But we welcome the changes it could bring to the workplace to offer more flexibility to parents in ways that will benefit children. It is an upside to an otherwise tragic time.
Abby McCloskey (@McCloskeyAbby) is an economist and founder of McCloskey Policy LLC. She has advised multiple presidential campaigns. Angela Rachidi (@AngelaRachidi) is the Rowe Scholar in poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute where she studies policies that affect low-income children and families.