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Will elder care surpass child care as the work-family issue of the 21st century?
Category: Issues in Aging
Tags: Eldercare Caregiving Workplace

Will elder care surpass child care as the work-family issue of the 21st century? I think so. As baby-boomers age - with over 10,000 baby-boomers turning 65 every day - we may be approaching a time when there are more employees leaving the workforce to care for a parent than a child. In fact, By 2020, forty percent of the workforce expects to care for an elderly relative. Eldercare is a very gendered activity and much like childcare, time away from work for eldercare will be taken primarily by women, and the economic costs are significant. According to a 2011 study by MetLife, the total individual amount of lost wages to women due to leaving the labor force early because of caregiving responsibilities equals $142,693. The study goes on to say...

The estimated impact of caregiving on lost Social Security benefits is $131,351. A very conservative estimated impact on pensions is approximately $50,000. Thus, in total, the cost impact of caregiving on the individual female caregiver in terms of lost wages and Social Security benefits equals $324,044. 

Just as public policy brought pressure to bear on employers to provide time off for workers with dependent children in the 1960's and 1970's, we will likely see similar policies enacted for elder care as well. Although the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) sought to provide relief to workers who provide care to those suffering from a "serious health condition," there remains ambiguity in the FLMA as well as gaping holes that  that have gone largely unnoticed in the legal literature.

Is if fair to compare child care with elder care? Our current system of laws protects children who are neglected by their parents, and public policy, morals, and societal norms rightfully enforce obligations on the parents of minor children to provide a minimum level of care to those children or risk having them removed from their custody. Presently, absent cases of abuse and neglect by an invididual who is legally put in charge of an older adult, there is no legal requirement and only localized societal pressure to care for one's aging parent. Moreover that obligation can be more readily off-shouldered to siblings, other family members, or even institutions willing to take on the task. This legal, moral, and public interest issue is not what I'm trying to address herein, although I personally believe there is an absense of Filial Piety, primarily in western cultures.

That said, for those who have provided both child care and elder care, I think it is fair to say that elder care is more difficult. Research indicates, for example, that relative to child care, elder care involves more unanticipated caregiving situations, is more complicated to manage, and causes greater levels of stress for the care provider.

It will be interesting to see this debate as it unfolds over the next several years. Because of the enormous economic impact on both employees and employers, this debate will doubtlessly become political, which is unfortunate.

Source: Smith, Peggie R., Elder Care, Work, and Gender: The Work-Family Issue of the 21st Century. Berkley Journal of Employment and Labor Law, Vol. 25, 2004. Available at SSRN: