A recent article in The Atlantic describes a dystopian scene: Dozens of parents waiting in line for hours and even overnight in suburban Connecticut, just to get their kids into an after-school program that was already running with a waitlist. Except this isn’t a dystopian novel; this is happening right now. This anecdote speaks to a decades-old but all-too-pressing problem: The conventional workday is hours longer than the conventional school day, and students are only in school for a portion of each year, meaning many parents face a spend vs. sacrifice dilemma. Either they shell out hundreds of dollars each month on childcare or they leave workforce to care for their kids themselves. The question of opt out is indeed a complicated and personal one, but there’s no question that so many families right now are doing the math. And when the math doesn’t add up, one parent has to give. And it's often the mother making the sacrifice.
The article suggests that reorienting the school year and school day is the answer. There is precedent for such changes, after all: Schools introduced extended hours during World War II as mothers were pulled into the workforce, and 3,700 schools have introduced year-round schedules by now.
There’s no question in my mind that we need to get creative about what the comprehensive school-plus-after-care day looks like, but perhaps the complementary solution is to reorient the workday.
Statistics bear out the urgency of this problem. As The Atlantic points out, both parents work in half of married-couple families, with 70 percent working from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. And, by the way, most of us feel lucky if we are ONLY working 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. But only half of American public schools offer after-school programs. And the Center for American Progress estimates that the misalignment between school and work schedules might be costing the U.S. economy $55 billion (yes, BILLION) in lost productivity every year.
Let’s not forget that the current school and work schedules are remnants of bygone ways of life. The eight-hour workday was standardized in the early 1900s, only after labor unions demanded change to grueling Industrial Revolution-era work schedules. The conventional school day and school year, on the other hand, were solidified even earlier—when 19th-century school reformers reconciled the needs of rural and urban students.
At the time—and continuing well into the 20th century—women were expected to be the homemakers and caregivers while men took on the breadwinning burden. Now, however, 75 percent of women with school-age children work, and many of them aren't getting the promotions or the salaries that their skills and experience would entitle them to.
My husband Phil and I feel this pain point every day, even with just one child. The incompatibility of the school day and the workday can make school drop-offs and pick-ups into daily stressors, for instance. We invest in an after-school babysitter, but it took us month of searching and finally agreeing to pay very generously. So while that solves our school year challenges, it comes at a price. According to the Center for American Progress, U.S. families dole out an average of $6,600 per year out-of-pocket for childcare costs.
But then there’s also summer camp schedules to contend with, which can change camp-to-camp and week-to-week. And then what about those few weeks at the start and end of the summer, when there is NO school or camp? We feel fortunate to have found caregivers who can be flexible, though it’s not remotely a perfect system. Both Phil and I have had our fair share of emergency stay-at-home days due to gaps in coverage or last-minute cancellations.
Suffice it to say, I've had a lot of time and reason to think about this incompatibility issue. But I don't believe the only solution is to extend the school day. Why would we try to accommodate and normalize a 1900s-era workday even more, when it's rapidly becoming outdated?
I believe that we need to realign school and work at the same time, and so it’s an imperative to make our workday more flexible. Remote (i.e. location independence) is one of the most well-known flexibility types, but even DeskPlus (i.e. location variety) could allow working parents more time at home. The time-based modifications we advocate for at Werk might prove even more useful: TimeShift lets employees work unconventional hours, and MicroAgility lets them take a timeout from work to attend to non-work obligations. Alternatively, for parents who'd like to or need to spend less time working, PartTime offers a reduction of hours without a reduction of ambition, keeping employees on a career advancement track.
Our research at Werk shows that structured flexibility improves employee productivity, health and wellness, and caregiving abilities—and helps employers with their talent attraction, engagement, and retention—but flex could also reconcile work and school schedules. Our focus at Werk has always been work-life compatibility, and maybe we all need to start thinking about school-work compatibility as well.