AMC’s hit show Mad Men has received widespread critical acclaim, in part, for its depiction of changing social mores surrounding gender, work, and family. Set in the 1960s, three-martini lunches, overt sexual harassment, and stay-at-home wives are the norm. The workplace sure has changed…or has it?
Workplace norms of yesterday were based on a gendered division of labor in which men were breadwinners and women were caretakers. Because women took responsibility for the domestic realm, men could work full-time, without interruption, throughout their lives.With few—if any—disruptions from family life, men were able to put in long hours, on-site, day in and day out. Although these norms were sometimes demanding, workers who complied with them could expect to climb the corporate ladder.
Over the past 60 years, the composition of the labor force has changed dramatically. Women’s participation in the workforce has soared, particularly for women with young children: 45 percent of women with children under the age of 18 worked in 1965; by 2012, this number had risen to 71 percent. Additionally, today’s workers are more likely to be divorced or single parents than their 1965 counterparts. These changes mean that most workers now shoulder both paid work and family responsibilities.
Americans are also staying single more often. As of 2011, approximately half of the population was unmarried—a record high. Even if they don’t have children, these people, too, must simultaneously juggle work and household responsibilities.
As life expectancy increases and women have children later in life, many people find themselves in the “sandwich generation,” simultaneously caring for both aging relatives and children. In 2008, nearly 20 percent of workers cared for a relative over the age of 65—up from 10 percent in 1992—and half anticipated providing eldercare in the near future. Clearly, the demands of home life are increasing.
Moreover, today’s parents are more involved in childrearing than Don—or even Betty—Draper. Current norms mandate that parents engage in child-centered, labor intensive parenting. Ferrying children to and from soccer practice, tutoring, and piano lessons is the weeknight norm. Consequently, the average mother spends four more hours each week on childcare than her 1965 correlate; the average father’s weekly childcare time has nearly tripled. These parenting practices only exacerbate the tensions working parents face.
Despite growing caregiving responsibilities, today’s average professional employee also spends more time at the office, according to a research by Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein, and Heidi Shierholz. The typical middle-income American worked an average of 11 more hours a week in 2006 than in 1979 and professionals are increasingly working 50 or more hours per week as opposed to the traditional 40. Technological advancements like smartphones, video-conferencing and virtual private networks have enabled these long hours, creating a culture in which employers expect employees to be available 24-7.
To be sure, some employers now offer flexible work options like telecommuting, flexible scheduling, or job-sharing. Yet, research consistently finds that employees who seek flexible options are stigmatized for doing so. Aware of this bias, few employees actually take advantage of these opportunities.
But should employers be responsible for accommodating workers’ personal lives? If someone has children, he or she should be prepared to deal with the consequences… Right? The problem with this ideology is that everyone loses. Over 90 percent of American parents—both mothers and fathers—report experiencing work-life conflict, according to one study. Nearly 50 percent of parents feel that they spend insufficient time with their children. And many feel like they are shortchanging their spouse or partner. It’s not simply a matter of a few employees who have difficulty balancing their commitments.
Moreover, companies lose too. Employee stress and exhaustion renders companies less efficient and profitable than they could be. For example, the dual expectation that women work long hours and do the bulk of housework and childcare leads many talented women to quit in search of jobs that better facilitate work-life balance, or worse, exit the labor force. And, the focus on long hours has led to dysfunctional work practices. When “good” work means being the last to leave the parking lot at night, employees work longer rather than more efficiently.
Something has to give.
To recruit and retain the best people for the job, companies need to catch up with the changing realities of today’s workforce. They need to provide opportunities for employees to have full work and home lives, without repercussions for doing so. For one, they could create a workplace culture which rewards tangible results rather than face time and long hours. This kind of change won’t just help workers. Research shows that reducing work-life conflict improves employees’ health while lowering absenteeism and turnover. Such policies also encourage workers to identify and eliminate low-value, busy work that wastes company resources.
Today’s workplaces should treat workers with personal responsibilities outside of work as the rule rather than the exception. Despite Don Draper’s allure, his archetype should have about as much of an effect on the modern workplace as the three-martini lunch.