Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Six months into the Covid-19 pandemic that has shut down schools and day care centers and forced millions of Americans to work from home, the stressors of our no longer new normal are only growing. As it dawns on many of us that this situation is not an acute emergency but rather a protracted disaster with no end in sight, our collective patience is thinning. Which is perhaps why workplace tensions between people with children at home and those without seem higher than ever.
The latest example came from The New York Times this past weekend, in a story about some of the highly paid employees of Big Tech in Silicon Valley squabbling over Covid-related benefits and dispensations for parents. At various big tech companies, parents dealing with child care were given more time off and bonuses that were once tied to performance now given to everyone. The Times reported that some employees without children complained that the new benefits based on caregiving status were unfair, and that the childless were expected to pick up the slack from parents who were no longer pulling their own weight at work.
On social media, the verdict from the majority was swift: The child-free were being selfish. And indeed, it’s hard to feel a ton of sympathy for some of the country’s most handsomely compensated workers when they complain about equally privileged colleagues who are currently struggling. Laszlo Bock, Google’s former head of human resources, seemed to speak for many readers when he told the Times that, “for people to get upset enough to say that ‘I feel this is unfair’ demonstrates a lack of patience, a lack of empathy and a sense of entitlement.”
But while it’s easy to accuse the childless of acting entitled for objecting to these changes, that reaction misses the point – and frankly buys into some very toxic ideas about work itself. Work is not your family and it is not your friend; the only way your employer shows how much they value you is in how they compensate you.
Right now, a great many parents say that workplace expectations are simply too high to be met while also trying to do things like oversee a Zoom calculus class or make sure your toddler doesn’t drink bleach or flush his gerbil when you’re on a client call. Non-parents meanwhile report that assumptions about their free time and the total obliteration of boundaries between work and life means they are being asked to do much more at work without an attendant increase in compensation; complain, though, and you’re accused of lacking empathy – even if the complaint isn’t about parents getting some necessary breathing room, but about the childless being asked to shoulder more work indefinitely. No one is happy, and as the Times piece shows, many workers are sniping about each other.
The answer, then, isn’t for people without kids to get mad at parents for failing at being superhuman, or for parents to be angry when the childless voice their frustration at having to shoulder a heavier burden at work. A better solution would be to expect more from employers. Workplaces either need to scale down expectations across the board so that parents can step back and those who are not caretakers can continue to work as usual, or workplaces need to scale up hiring in order to fill the gap.
Two things seem to be illustrated by the data: Employees who are working from home are working more hours, while parents (and especially mothers) are able to work less. That certainly suggests that people with children are being stretched to a breaking point between paid work and home schooling and child care, while people without children are picking up a much heavier paid workload.
If the paid work that parents can’t manage falls to the childless – who already had full workloads, especially at big tech companies that have long erased the distinction between work and life – of course there is going to be resentment and anger. That’s not a lack of empathy or a sense of entitlement. It’s a correct assessment of the fact that your workplace is exploiting you because of your parental status, and pitting parents against non-parents instead of solving the problem at hand: Too much work and not enough people to do it.
Gender is another reason why the accusations of selfishness hurled at the childless objectors are misguided: A system that rewards workers who step up to work many more hours indefinitely without related compensation – that sees those workers as more empathetic, as less entitled, as better team players – and punishes those who object to those demands is a system that is going to reward the people who can do that: Men. Women spend much more of their lives than men doing care work, whether that’s for children or aging parents. And men are much more likely than women to rely on a partner who does most of the work at home, enabling men to spend more time working for pay. A workplace that expects some employees to step up so that parents – and let’s be real, mostly mothers – can step back instead of enforcing a culture where work expectations are reasonable, predictable, and fairly compensated is a workplace that will later reward those who stepped up and did more for less. That won’t just be the childless; it’ll be men regardless of parental status.
This system – obscene workplace expectations coupled with few worker protections, no cultural commitment to having a right to life outside of work, and an unspoken conclusion that we all choose our choices and just have to figure it out on our own – is terrible for everyone.
Parents and other caretakers absolutely do need to be accommodated in this moment. But this emergency is going to stretch on for many more months and could go for another year or more. It should be up to the employer to figure out how to manage that sustainably, not up to workers to redistribute already crushing workloads according to who is perceived as having more free time. Pushing parents – and again, mostly mothers, an entire generation of whom are at risk of taking unrecoverable career and earnings hits – out of the workforce is not the answer. Neither is pushing the extra work onto non-parents. And at a time when unemployment rates are high and people can work from anywhere, there is no excuse for not hiring enough people to make sure that working hours are reasonable for everyone.
Our workplaces already ask too much of us. Buying into a parents vs. non-parents mindset, though, misses the real problems: a government that has failed to meet families’ needs (let alone adequately combat this pandemic) and unfair workplaces that demand too much and give too little.