Millennials Are Putting Off Kids, and That’s Bad News for Working Parents

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

Birth rates are declining among our country’s millennial women, and that’s got me worried.

It’s not that I’m concerned about lackluster population growth or a sudden dearth of cute babies to coo at on the playground. Rather, I’m furrowing my brow over how this affects parents in the workplace.

A new study by the Urban Institute showed that birth rates have been falling since 2008 and, by 2012, women in their 20s, in particular, were reproducing at “by far the slowest pace of any generation of young women in US history.”

What this means for working moms and dads is that, more than ever before, our co-workers are likely to be childless folks. Now, this wouldn’t matter very much if at least one of the following were true:

A.) Respect for work-life balance was a given in most workplaces, with workers benefiting from company policies providing for ample flextime, work-from-home options and paid leave to care for newborn children, ailing family members, etc.

B.) Americans rarely worked more than 40 hours a week and found that their reasonable work schedules allowed time for them to lead happy, healthy, well-rounded lives.

C.) Regardless of company policies, all American workers, especially managers, were kind, compassionate, insightful people generally happy to provide flexible work options and treat with decency their employees for whom family or health obligations might stymie their abilities to put in traditional hours.

Of course, as many of you know, none of these things are true. To disprove “A,” you need look no further than the simple fact that unlike every other developed country, the U.S. does not mandate paid maternity leave and companies aren’t exactly falling all over themselves to offer it. And paternity leave? It’s more common than say, sightings of Big Foot — but not by much.

If you work anywhere, you know that “B” is pretty easy to debunk on an anecdotal basis, but I’ll throw some stats in for good measure: Half of all American full-timers work more than 40 hours a week. Nearly 1 in 5 work more than 60 hours a week, according a report last year by Gallup.

So where does this grim state of affairs leave working parents? Those of us who have to squeeze in pediatrician’s appointments between team meetings and beg off client dinners so we can attend dance recitals? It means that we must rely on the good graces of our co-workers and managers — people, who according to the Urban Institute’s findings, are more likely than ever before to have yet to experience what it means to be a parent.

Clearly, you don’t need to have your own children to appreciate and attempt to address the challenges facing parents in the workplace. Not long ago, I wrote about Viktoria, a childless manager who bent over backwards to help an employee, an overwhelmed mother of three. A few years before that, I interviewed childless working women who did what they could to lend a hand to co-workers with children. But there are people on the opposite side of the spectrum — those who don’t understand or worse, just don’t care.

I like to think of myself as a generally nice person, but I’ll admit that before I had children, I was oblivious and, yes, pretty unconcerned about how hard it really was out there for working moms. I inwardly scoffed when I saw parents leave the office at 5 on the dot and was resentful when I watched them plead to avoid certain shifts because of child-related commitments.

Katharine Zaleski, the co-founder of the global women’s employment firm PowerToFly, has conceded to something worse. In a viral Fortune essay earlier this year, she revealed that she committed “long list of infractions against mothers” before having her own child. That list included scheduling meetings near the end of the day when parents might need to pick up kids from daycare and failing to stand up for a woman who risked losing her job due to pregnancy. So much for “C.”

I’d love to believe that the Viktorias of the world outnumber the (pre-baby) Katharines, but my own experiences as a parent in the workplace and the complaints I’ve heard from both men and women tell me otherwise. I also know that having children made both me and Katharine far more compassionate toward parents and also passionate about helping other parents.

It’s worth noting, of course, that becoming a mom or dad doesn’t automatically make you the patron saint of working parents. I know of supervisors with children who nonetheless show little regard for their working parent underlings. And I’m not just referring to the increasingly dated stereotype of the high-ranking male boss who has a dutiful wife at home and devotes himself completely to his job while largely ignoring his children. I’m talking about breathless working moms with their own daycare or nanny headaches who, for one reason or another (pressure from above, perhaps?), schedule non-urgent meetings for 5:30 p.m. and disapprove of remote work.

All that being said, I’m willing to bet good money that workplaces with more parents still tend to offer a more supportive environment to moms and dads than those with fewer parents. (Note to social scientists: If you’re not studying such a thesis already, please consider it!)

So if the modern workplace is now being populated with fewer parents, will we see a corresponding decline in the consideration offered to working moms and dads? Will we be less likely to find co-workers willing to cover for us on a conference call when little Sarah has a fever of 103?  Will we have bosses who are less willing to OK a work-from-home day so that we can avoid rush-hour traffic and make it in time to watch young Joey tap dance his way across the stage?

Here’s a deeper question: Are fewer millennials having children in part because they are aware of how incompatible many workplaces are with the life of a modern parent? Is this a vicious cycle in the making? Think about it this way: Millennials are choosing to delay or forego having children, leading to less parent-friendly workplaces, leading to more visible hardships among working parents, resulting in even more young people looking askance at the undesirable lives of working parents, leading to even fewer young people having children and so on.

I hope that’s not the case. I hope I’m overthinking it. And I hope that, despite anecdotal evidence suggesting otherwise, compassion for parents will become more common, even if childbearing does not.

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