GRAY: The gift of flexibility

Fathers need more free time to balance work and family

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This week Americans honor their fathers on Father's Day. This is a particularly important Father's Day because it’s the 100th anniversary of the celebration. It is said that Father's Day began in 1910 in response to Mother’s Day. Sonora Smart Dodd came up with the idea while listening to a Mother’s Day sermon in church. Dodd’s mother had died during childbirth, and she and her five siblings were raised by her father. Dodd thought there should be a holiday to recognize the important contributions of fathers. Father's Day began not to recognize the contributions of fathers at work but at home.

Perhaps the most significant demographic trend of the last century is the entrance of women into the workforce. Today, half of the U.S. labor force is female and the “great recession” has increased the percentage of women in the workforce as more men have lost jobs than have women.

The downside of having both men and women working and working hard is lack of time for family.

The changes over the years are striking. The percentage of dual-earner households with children has increased from 27 percent in 1965 to 58 percent in 2005.

In 1968, 25 percent of children lived in households with both parents working full time; now it’s nearly half.

Yet, in addition to all our hard work for pay in the economy, Americans still have to raise children and care for households. With two parents in many families working full time, it can be difficult for families to have sufficient time together. Eighty percent of Americans say they lack sufficient work-life balance. Seventy percent say they have too little time for self. And that can be problematic for our health. Polls indicate that children want uninterrupted time with parents more than anything else. I had lunch with a friend last week who complained that she and her husband have at most one hour a day that is not already scheduled. One hour for self time or couple time. For single parents or low income parents life can be even more challenging.

The situation for fathers has, in many cases, become even more stressful than for mothers. As more and more men play larger roles in child care or caring for the home, as Sonora Smart Dodd’s father did, men are feeling more and more stress. The Families and Work Institute has reported that in dual-earner couples with children, men now feel more work-life stress than women.

Yet while the families have changed in this last 100 years since the first Father's Day, the structure of work in America has not. Work is still done too often in the same rigid ways as ever, with little flexibility, vacation, space for families and non-site-specific training.

As a result, a majority of Americans surveyed say that their workplace is not sufficiently flexible to meet their needs.

That is why workplace flexibility is so important.

Fathers and mothers need more flexibility in how, when and where they work in order to be productive and happy employees, parents, spouses and people.

Following the Republican and Democratic primaries last week, the nation’s political and policy attention now turns to the upcoming November elections.

The female victors a week ago Tuesday who have raised children while being successful in the working world - Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, California senatorial nominee Carly Fiorina, South Carolina’s gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley and Nevada senatorial candidate Sharron Angle - means that they could credibly focus on work-life balance as an issue in the 2010 elections, as Michelle Obama has discussed before, such as at a White House Forum on March 31.

Yet, I hope fathers, the male candidates, too,raise the issue. Both President Obama and Sen. John McCain supported workplace flexibility by name during the 2008 election.

With 80 percent of Americans concerned about work-life balance, it’s good politics to raise the issue and offer workplace flexibility solutions. Flexible work arrangements, time-off leave, career flexibility, conversations between employers and employees about flexibility that works for both, work sharing, telework, revising the Fair Labor Standards Act - all are important policies to be discussed during this campaign season.

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