/ Commentary: The Changing Dynamics of Work and Family


This commentary on changing family and work dynamics offers readers insights into the needs of working families. The author challenges both families and employers to develop strategies that will be mutually beneficial to family preservation and workplace productivity.

Key words: work, family, careers, child care, elder care

    1. Marlynn Levin, M.A., is Director of the Work/Family Center, The Merrill-Palmer Institute for Family and Human Development, Wayne State University, 71-A East Ferry Avenue, Detroit, Michigan, 48202.return to text

    In the past decade there have been evolutionary changes in the social, political, and economic structure of the United States. This evolution has impacted both the family and the workplace as increasing numbers of people struggle to balance their work and family lives. As today's families blend, separate, and re-define themselves, so, too, is the modern workplace constantly changing, trying to respond to the ever-shifting directions of the political and economic climate. How, then, are we to meet the challenge of developing strategies that will be mutually beneficial to family preservation and workplace productivity? How do we manage to do so in an environment where the rules change while we are playing the game?

    Changing Family Dynamics

    "American families today are living under circumstances much different than even a few years ago. Every income group and geographic region is affected," stated Representative George Miller, former chairman of the House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families. He noted that most children aged 13 years and under live in a family in which either both parents or the only parent present are working. Whether this fact is good or bad is no longer an issue for discussion. The reality is that this trend will continue. Social changes over the years have opened up challenging career opportunities for both men and women. But, more importantly, changes in the economic structure now make it necessary for most adults to be gainfully employed in order to maintain their household. While the majority of people may be in the workforce because of economic necessity rather than career fulfillment, both reasons are equally valid. On the political front, it appears that welfare reform will mandate that all able-bodied adults be in the workforce.

    One of the fastest growing segments in the workforce are mothers of infants and toddlers. Most working women are likely to become pregnant at some time during their working lives. Whereas in the past most mothers stayed home at least until their children were in school, today the majority return to work within the first year of their child's life—often as early as six weeks after delivery. But it is not only parents of young children who face child-care issues. Working parents also must deal with the stresses associated with parenting school-age and teenage children, since many of these children remain unsupervised while parents are at work.

    A unique segment of the population is grandparents who find themselves raising their grandchildren. At a time in their lives when they may have anticipated more leisure and/or retirement, these older adults often have to remain in the workforce in order to provide financial support for their grandchildren. This problem is compounded by the fact that grandparents may have limited energy or health problems.

    While the issues related to work and family affect all family members throughout their lifespan, it would be unrealistic to overlook their disproportionate impact on women. Many women in the workforce are in low paying jobs, most of which do not provide benefits or pensions. In addition to the continual battle to maintain economic solvency, women remain in the role of primary caregivers in our society and, as such, are faced with the continual struggle to balance work and family life.

    In an ongoing study by The Merrill-Palmer Institute, Child Care Problems and Worker Productivity: An Examination of Gender, Occupational Status and Work Environments Effects (Cabral, Brummit, & Levin, 1996), preliminary findings reveal that concerns about work disruptions caused by child-care problems are different for men and women. Specifically, women were more likely than men to report child-care related work disruptions. Among men, blue collar workers were the most likely and executives the least likely to report absences because of child-care problems. For women, there were no differences in child-care related work disruptions across job categories. Thus, it appears that working women at all levels are balancing the dual demands of job and family, whereas men in the upper levels of the workforce are better insulated from such problems.

    In the United States, the rates of separated, divorced, and never-married parents continually increase, resulting in an ever growing number of single-parent families. These single parents often have limited economic resources while bearing total responsibility for the financial support and care of their family members. Single parents often cannot depend upon extended family members for support since they may not live in the same city or also may be, themselves, in the workforce. Balancing work and family becomes a difficult burden and never-ending challenge.

    While the vast majority of single parents with custodial responsibility for their children are women, single fathers must not be overlooked. Men with custodial responsibilities are also struggling with work/family problems, but they appear to be more reluctant than women to verbalize their needs or ask for support both in and out of the workplace. Married men also are more involved with child-rearing, claiming that they "don't want to be like my father" who had little time for his growing children. In dual-income families, men and women are sharing the family responsibilities—including the parenting tasks.

    The lifespan in the United States increases with each census. A child born today may have a better chance of living to age 65 than a child born 200 years ago had of living to the age of one. This aging of the population has significant implications for work/family balance as increasing numbers of working adults now must provide elder care. Most married couples have more parents than children and will probably spend more years of their lives caring for their parents than for their children. While child-care issues and situations generally become easier to solve over time as the child ages, elder care becomes increasingly difficult as the elder adult often becomes more and more dependent and physically and/or mentally impaired. Elder-care problems can ultimately be more intruding, expensive, and longer lasting than child-care problems. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that elders may live some distance from the family member responsible for their care.

    In order to understand the interaction between work and family, it is as important to examine the changing dynamics of the workplace as the changing dynamics of the family.

    Changing Work Dynamics

    As we approach the next century, we will see a workplace with changing demographics and different faces. There likely will be fewer people entering the workforce than there were during the last few decades, resulting in a slow growth to the workforce. The median age of workers likely will rise as the general age of the population rises. The relative number of younger workers may, consequently, decrease. The majority of people entering the workforce likely will be women, minorities, and immigrants. It is important to note that many of these people may be unskilled and untrained and may be over-represented in declining occupations.

    Business, labor, and government organizations—as well as health care and educational institutions—are developing new strategies as they respond to the economic imperatives of competitive success, innovation, and cost-effective management. We see organizations expanding, downsizing, merging, and relocating. Employees of small businesses comprise the bulk of the workforce as the number of small business continually grows. Technological changes require employees to constantly develop new skills. In most cases these skills must have portability as people move from one employer to another. Guaranteed lifetime employment with one organization has virtually ended. Internally, the process of decision making is in transition as organizations move from a hierarchical structure to a process of sharing power, two-way communication, and labor/management partnerships.

    As organizations attempt to maximize their competitiveness and productivity they often increase the demands they make of their workers. It appears that many companies consider a 40-hour week to be a part-time job—making employees run faster and work longer. Jobs often require employees to travel and/or commute long distances or relocate periodically. Beepers, cellular phones, and home computers put people within 24-hour access to the workplace.

    With all of these changing work and family dynamics, how do we achieve a balance to the seemingly competing demands of work and family life?

    Seeking Solutions

    It would be nice to be able to say that there are simple recipes or methods of solving problems related to work/family balance. However, it is important to realize that effective solutions do not come in "cookie cutter" molds. Rather, they need to be company specific, and—in multi-site organizations—may need to be site specific, addressing the particular needs of both employer and employees.

    When employers decide to respond to the work/family needs of their employees, it is appropriate and necessary to address the issue from a business standpoint, particularly if benefits and support systems are financed as a business expense. (If an organization simply wishes to be nice to children and families they can make donations through their corporate giving office.) It is important to approach the work/family issue in the same way that an organization would address any other business issue: examining the rationale and needs of both employer and employee—including a needs assessment and a cost/benefit analysis. When assessing potential costs for work/family programs the important question is not "How much will it cost?" but rather, "How much am I losing by not responding to the work/family needs of my employees?"

    In order to develop support systems that are mutually beneficial to job productivity and life balance, it is important to understand the needs of both the employer and employee. Employers may have productivity problems related to absenteeism, recruitment, retention, or morale. They must be able to recruit and retain capable and reliable employees. The ultimate goal of the employer should be to create an environment which will enable every member of the workforce to perform to his/her greatest potential.

    Employees may have a number of needs. These might include:

    • the need for direct services, e.g., having the employer actually provide services such as various forms of child care, health and fitness care, take home meals, dry cleaning services;
    • information services, e.g., resource and referral programs, counseling, seminars at the workplace, resource library;
    • financial assistance, e.g., vouchers, subsidies, cafeteria benefits, salary reduction plans paying for child/elder care with tax-free dollars;
    • time to effectively balance work and family life, e.g., part-time employment, job sharing, flexible hours, sabbaticals, and flexible leave policies.

    Needless to say, this is not an exhaustive list. Support services should address the needs of employees across the lifespan, regardless of family configuration. In the end, what most employees basically want is to have control over their lives and to be able to maintain a balance between work and personal life. With an issue as basic and pervasive as the interaction between job productivity and family preservation, the questions continue to be:

    • Whose responsibility is it to respond?
    • Is this a social, political, or economic issue?
    • Should relevant policies be developed at a national level, state, or local level or be left to the discretion of individual employers?
    • Should work/family support programs be financed by business, by labor, by the government, or be the financial responsibility of the individual?

    The answer to the previous questions, actually, is "all of the above." A comprehensive response to work/family initiatives must be developed through collaborative planning—including a collaborative financing strategy. The problem of balancing work and family life is not insurmountable if both employer and employee recognize that the benefits of a well planned work/family program are in the best interests of everyone involved.


    Cabral, R., Brummit, G., & Levin, M. (1996). Child care problems and worker productivity: An examination of gender, occupational status and work environments effects. Report available from The Merrill-Palmer Institute, 71-A East Ferry, Detroit, Michigan, 48202.

    Recommended Bibliography

    Ferguson, T., & Dunphy,J. S. (1991). Answers to the mommy track. Far Hills, NJ: New Horizon Press.

    Friedman, D. E., & Johnson, A. (1996). Moving from programs to culture change: The next stage for the corporate work-family agenda. New York: Families and Work Institute.

    Galinsky, E., Bond, T., & Friedman, D. (1993). The changing workforce: Highlights from the national study. New York: Families and Work Institute.

    Johnston, W. B., (1987). Workforce 2000: Work and workers for the 21st century. Indianapolis, IN: Hudson Institute.

    Michaels, B., & McCarthy, E. (1992). Solving the work/family puzzle. Homewood, IL: Business One Irwin.

    Olmstead, B., & Smith, S. (1996). Creating a flexible workplace, 2nd ed. Report available from American Management Association, 490 First Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20001.

    Sher, M. L., & Fried, M. (1994). Child care options: A workplace initiative for the 21st century. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

    U. S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau. (1993). Women who maintain families. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office.

    U. S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau. (1993). Handbook on women workers: trends and issues. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office.

    U. S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau. (1996). 20 facts on women workers. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office.

    Walker, J., & Swiss, D. (1993). Women and the work/family dilemma. New York: Wiley.