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The Future of Work and Implications for Child Care

The realities of the post-pandemic labor market include:

  • Remote or telework,
  • Rapid changes in technology and globalization, and
  • High turnover and employees seeking more fulfilling opportunities.

Since the start of the pandemic in January 2020, workforce trends are evolving at an unprecedented rate. Short-term changes that occurred because of COVID-19 are expected to develop into long-term, revolutionary gains, while changes in technology and globalization are expected to continue accelerating. Employers are experiencing more turnover than ever before, with employees seeking more fulfilling opportunities and looking for changes after nearly two years of uncertainty.

As Millennials and Gen Z employees begin to dominate the workforce, they will demand economic security and stability and workplace freedom and flexibility. An element that isn’t frequently discussed enough is how these workforce changes will necessitate a thoughtful design of the services needed to support employers and employees – including options for child care.

This blog summarizes available data and research on the changing nature of workplaces, workers, the issues impacting our nation’s economic success, and reflects on how a reimagined child care and early education system can better meet these changes.

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Location of Work: Evolution of Hybrid and Remote Models

A 2020 McKinsey & Company report on the future of remote work summarized that the pandemic “accelerate[d] a workplace experiment that had struggled to gain traction before COVID-19 hit.” According to Census data, in 2019, fewer than 6% of Americans worked primarily from home, flash forward a few months (May 2020) and about 35% were doing so. Workers and businesses within certain industries are much more likely to have the option: for instance, 57% of workers in management and professional occupations were working from home in May 2020.

Amid significant productivity gains and a changing culture, it is likely that many companies will continue to employ a hybrid or entirely virtual model for their workers in the years to come. An April 2021 survey by the Conference Board found that a strong majority (87%) of employers are willing to hire primarily virtual or remote workers, up from less than half a year prior. The McKinsey report found that over 20% of the workforce can continue to work remotely three to five days of the week without any loss in productivity or effectiveness.

Our own survey with Morning Consult conducted in May 2021 found that a majority (58%) of working parents with children under age five were able to work at least a portion of their week remotely, and in the future, 60% want to work remotely at least part of the week, including 29% who wish to work remotely full-time.

These changes will have a profound impact on urban economies, transportation needs, consumer spending, and importantly on the need for child care. For instance, 70% of businesses anticipate reducing their real estate footprint in the next two years, which will impact modes of transportation and businesses in urban and business centers. Less of a need to travel to work will also impact the location parents want child care.

Concurrently, half of the workforce has little or no opportunity for remote work, many are essential workers with schedules that shift from week to week. In our May 2021 survey, we found that over one-quarter (29%) of parents report they are made aware of their work schedules no more than 2 weeks in advance of working, and 42% of parents have a fixed work schedule. Additionally, 29% of parents report needing child care outside of traditional work hours (or between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m.). To support these working parents, child care needs to be available during non traditional work hours.

Women in the Workforce

To ensure an equitable and successful recovery, it is important to understand how the pandemic has impacted women’s workforce participation. As many as 2 million women have considered leaving the workforce or taking a career break since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. Strategies aimed at retaining women, attracting female candidates, and bridging the gender gap are more important than ever.

Working Mothers

Parents, most often mothers, have always been confronted by the proverbial “work-life balance,” and the pandemic has only tipped the scales further. Since the start of the pandemic, over half (58%) of women with children reported additions to child care tasks, and the number of women who claim they are responsible for 75% or more of caregiving obligations nearly tripled to 48%.

In addition, families are facing serious problems finding child care. In April 2021, nearly two in three working parents (57%) with children under age five said child care responsibilities impacted their ability to work including almost one in four (22%) who said it often or always impacted their work. The issues extend to the child, as two-thirds of parents (66%) said their child’s overall development had negatively changed in some way. Compounding caregiving challenges, a third of American households experienced serious financial problems in the last year.

From pre pandemic times through May 2020, the change in labor force participation rates among parent-age adults equated to a loss of about 1.5 million female workers, nearly twice the losses of their male counterparts. In a different survey, BPC found that women were twice as likely as men to say they left work for caregiving responsibilities due to child care provider or school closures because of COVID-19.

The exodus of working women from the workforce continues. The most recent Women in the Workplace report predicts that 23% of mothers with children under age 10 will consider leaving the workforce, and 17% will consider downshifting their careers or working less hours, throughout the next year. Seven out of 10 women believe their career advancement will be impeded in the coming year.

Women of Color

Even prior to the pandemic, across every level of the corporate ladder, women of color were severely underrepresented. But women of color have also been more disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, in part because they are overrepresented in the population of essential workers. The uneven recovery for Black Americans has meant that Black women have had the hardest time finding a job: the Black unemployment rate is nearly double that of the rate for White counterparts. Black men and women are about twice as likely as their White peers to report that they’re unable to look for work because they can’t find child care or because they have other caregiving responsibilities.

Conclusion

As the economy recovers and the dust settles from the havoc COVID-19 has wrought, what work looks like is still unclear. The choices that businesses and employees (especially women with young children) make about work will have enormous impacts on child care.

Early childhood leaders must be aware of and responsive to the rapidly changing workforce. Flexibility and the ability to be more responsive to public needs will be a critical factor in the long-term success of child care programs in meeting the future needs of the workforce.

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