Workforce Development

Better Work-Life Balance Doesn’t Just Help Employees; It Helps the Whole Economy.

March 15, 2016  • Aspen Institute Staff

Key Points

  • Policies that address work-life conflict are good for both families and the economy - something that the United States is only beginning to realize.
  • Millennials have been instrumental in shaping the contract between citizens and society, pushing for flexibility that allows them to achieve all the things that they want in their lives.

As work demands more of employees’ time, many are asking: How can I earn a living while making sure my family doesn’t fall behind? Workers across all income brackets struggle with the United States’ outdated work-life policy framework, but the balancing act is particularly challenging and risky for low- and moderate-income workers and their families who have smaller financial margins and a weak safety net.

In the Q&A below, Heather Boushey, economist and author of the new book “Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict,” explains how generous work-life balance policies benefit everyone, including employees, businesses, and the economy as a whole. 

Aspen Idea: We often hear that work-life balance is important for personal happiness, but how does work-life balance contribute to economic growth?

Heather Boushey: When we think of the economy, we have to think of the whole economy. If you consider both supply and demand, as well as overall productivity, addressing work-life conflict affects all of these aspects of our economy.

If families and workers experience high levels of conflict between caring for their families and holding down a job — and doing that job to the best of their ability — this affects labor supply. For example, we know that when new mothers have access to paid family leave, they are much more likely to return to their jobs. That is, labor supply is being boosted by a policy that addresses work-life conflict.

There are also very real ways that addressing work-life conflict at the firm level improves productivity. This is a long-standing argument that we’ve heard time and time again. Policies that make it possible for workers to focus on their jobs without having to worry about their children  — because they have a schedule that works for them and their family (or at least a predictable schedule) or because they know they can take a paid sick day when they have to — all improve productivity.

AI: What are some innovative ways that other countries are using to address this issue?

HB: One of the striking things about the United States is how late we are to the party in understanding that policies that address work-life conflict are good for both families and the economy. In my book, I told a story about being in Westminster in London, for a meeting with British policymakers who were discussing the city’s economic plans for an upcoming speech. To me, what was remarkable was that this group of economic experts pointed to the importance of childcare not just as something “nice” to do, but as a real tool. They got that access to affordable childcare raises labor supply, stabilizes family incomes, and boosts productivity in the economy overall.

The countries that make up the United Kingdom have implemented paid family leave for new parents. On top of this, the United Kingdom and a variety of countries have implemented what are called “right to work” policies. These allow employees to request schedules that work for them and their families, and they open up the dialogue between employers and employees to find something that works for both parties. These are all models that we can learn from.

However, I want to say that all of these types of policies are already in place somewhere within these United States. That is to say, we don’t need to look abroad to find our answers. We can look to what’s happening in cities and states all across this country.

AI: There are many work schedules other than the traditional 9-5 job. How can single parents, gig economy workers, on-call employees, and others find work-life balance?

HB: We hear a lot of talk about our economy and so-called “flexibility.” And a lot of people actually need flexibility. How many people struggle because they just found out their child’s school is closing early that day and they have to revamp their work schedule to be able to pick up their children early? Or they have to be able to afford after-school care? And, how many struggle to find last-minute child care because their work schedule keeps changing? We need schedules that work for both workers and their employers.

The good news is that we know a lot about this. In research that my organization, the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, is funding, scholars Joan Williams and Susan Lambert are working with national retailer the Gap to compare stores with and without a scheduling pilot program to uncover the effectiveness of a more stable scheduling program for employees’ and employers’ bottom lines alike. Other businesses, such as Costco, Trader Joe’s, and QuikTrip, successfully operate under the philosophy that investing in labor through higher salaries, better schedules, and increased training can improve the bottom line as well. Doing so enhances operational efficiency and customer service, which boosts profits.

AI: In the next 20 years, how will millennials shape the social contract between citizens and society? What will it look like?

HB: Millennials are already shaping our economy and our society — we can certainly see this in the current presidential campaigns. One thing that we know from a variety of surveys is that this generation, especially now that they are young parents themselves, are pushing for more options to address work-life conflict.

Much of the excitement around the country for policies that favor paid leave and stable schedules is being driven by leaders who are millennials themselves. For example, Carrie Gleason, who directs the Fair Workweek Initiative at the Center for Popular Democracy, has been bringing people together and organizing around the issue of economic justice and workplace fairness.

We see that this generation is pushing for flexibility that allows them to achieve all the things that they want in their lives. Scholar Claudia Goldin has documented this for women. In a very important paper she put out in 2006, she wrote about how today’s young women want both work and family. Beginning around 1970, Goldin documents a shift in the importance women began placing on different life outcomes, away from family toward having a career and financial success. Economic independence became more valuable with increased attachment to the labor force and an increase in the age of first marriage.

All of this makes me very optimistic that this generation will help us create an economy that works for all.

Heather Boushey is executive director and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her research focuses on economic inequality and public policy, specifically employment, social policy, and family economic well-being.