Kathleen Christensen

America’s families have changed… its workplaces haven’t

VTR Date: January 11, 2014

Guest: Dr. Kathleen Christensen


GUEST: Kathleen Christensen
AIR DATE: 1/11/2014
VTR: 09/13/13

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this program is about a letter to the New York Times agreeing that a recent Times article correctly indicates that families have changed in America, but our workplaces have not… and that we may now have a 21st-century work force laboring in a 20th-century workplace.

But psychologist Kathleen Christensen, who wrote that letter and is Director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s “Working Longer” program, also argues that what the article didn’t note is that “having children is just a slice of time for people who will live well into their 80’s and 90’s and plan to have productive work lives at least until their 70’s”.

“The notion that people have to have ‘made it’ by their mid-to late 40’s – the ages that collide dramatically with the child-raising ages – is archaic” she writes, concluding that “Many parents – men and women alike – will be ready to ‘lean in’ in their 50’s and 60’s, but just might not want to or be able to do so in their 30’s and 40’s.”

And I so would ask Dr. Christensen what indication there is that the American workplace will ever accommodate itself to such a friendly family pattern.

CHRISTENSEN: (Laughter) Well, I think that the major indication is that it is in their own best interest. We have … we have …

HEFFNER: Employers?

CHRISTENSEN: Employers best interest. And the reason I say that is that we are living through a major societal shift … demographically and socially. As you note, people are living longer, they are living healthier for longer portions of their live and they’re working longer. They’re working into their seventies and not retiring at the age in which they, they conventionally did.

And parents are no longer mono-focused. They’re not showing up at the workplace and only focused on work. They don’t have someone at home to take care of the home or the kids, so almost every working parent is dual focused.

They come to work and they’re focused on their job and they’re focused on their family. So the workforce has changed dramatically and employers recognize that if they’re going to get the best talent … to recruit the best talent, to retain the best talent … they’re going to have to understand the nature of their work force. But it’s a slow process. And some firms are doing it, but many firms are slow to understand … particularly with regard to the aging of the work force.

HEFFNER: Why is that? I would think that’s what they would understand best and most of all because they see that aging right in front of them.

CHRISTENSEN: Well, again, as you noted, it is really a 20th century workforce and the conventional norms of the 20th century workforce was that people would retire. That they would age gracefully out of the workplace and not be staying on.

And so that is the, the normative structure that many employers still hold. I, I sat in a meeting with the senior Comps and Benefits people in human resources of Fortune 500 companies and they were quite candid.

The issue of the aging workforce was not yet on their radar screen. And about a third in a global survey of business executives indicate that they are slow to adapt to, to the aging of the workforce.

So I think the fact is, is they are … there are so many other pressing needs employers face, that the issue of the aging workforce is a process and they’re only beginning to, to come to terms with it, to understand it.

Ah, Europe is another story. In Europe and particularly in Germany, because demographically they’re … their society has aged faster than ours has … they’re asking the question … “How do we retain the older workers? How can we insure that they are … they can maximize their performance and they stay in the workforce”.

We’re not yet in, in a situation in our country to be, to be, you know, facing that. Employers are not yet facing it.

HEFFNER: Well, I, I began the program by talking … and my last words were about a friendly family …


HEFFNER: … it’s really family-friendly …


HEFFNER: … and I wonder why … you say … because it’s in their best interests.


HEFFNER: Better interest. But I thought that in economic circles, one assumed that the … the, the manager does what’s best for him.


HEFFNER: In the “devil take the hindmost” philosophy … “I do what’s best for me” and I don’t quite understand the psychology … if you will forgive me … of not recognizing it, except so slowly.

CHRISTENSEN: You know (clears throat) … I think there is a profound poverty of imagination …

HEFFNER: “Poverty of imagination” …

CHRISTENSEN: Yeah. That you don’t … you know, you don’t recognize something … you don’t work to fix it until you know it’s broken. And for many firms it’s not yet “broken”. They have been able to work with the workforce that they’ve got and particularly in the recent great recession … people were afraid to move. If they had a job, they were going to keep a job. Many of the firms that are foresighted are now recognizing that as this economy picks up that they may start losing some of their best people. People who stayed because they feared that they might not get another job … are now going to start actively looking and when they feel that there is … that there might be opportunities.

And I think when that starts happening, then the companies will realize that it’s really in their best interest. Some, as I indicated, have already done that. I, I look into a firm like Deloitte where they recognize that the workforce that they’ve got today … more female, more working parents … is not going to necessarily want to follow the, the strict, straight line trajectory of traditional career paths.

And so they have really introduced something they call “mass career customization” where the career path is a matrix, it’s not a ladder. And it recognizes that people over the course of their lives may not want to go just straight up from their twenties to their sixties or seventies, but may need to plateau, may need to dip, may need to take time out from their careers.

So they have created, really, a, a template for a career path that allows people to dial up or dial down in terms of intensity and travel and responsibilities, recognizing that over the long term, people will be better engaged, be better performers, if the expectations better match … the career expectations better match … also the … their life course needs.

HEFFNER: Well, you use the expression that we’ve heard so often … the “lean up” …


HEFFNER: … you, you really do feel that there are … will be an increasingly substantial number of people who will want to pay attention to the family responsibilities …


HEFFNER: … in their thirties and forties … and then really want to “make it” when they get older than that.

CHRISTENSEN: Well, I think … I think one of the most important things right now is there is no single model. And so that what … and, and if we use the economic notion of supply and demand … the labor supply is quite variegated … so what we see is that many women would like the opportunity to press “plateau” when their children are younger and then as their children get older … really “lean in”.

The demand side … the employer side is not yet there. There is … with the exception of some firms, like Deloitte that recognize there can be variegated career paths … most firms haven’t recognized that.

But from the supply side, there’s no question that there are many women and many men who were ready to pick up steam in their fifties or sixties, but the workplace isn’t really ready to, to address that or accommodate that.

HEFFNER: You say there is some indication … have you done an analysis of what kinds of corporations in what areas are the ones who are recognizing this potential new pattern?

CHRISTENSEN: We are in the process of, of supporting a great deal of research. So, we’re in the process of trying to understand … not just industry or profession, but actual job characteristics, job conditions that would allow people to stay more fully engaged in the, the workforce over longer periods of time.

You know, those work conditions could be staying with the same firm, but changing the job. Perhaps changing the job to a lower stress one … so in that case, not wanting to “lean in” … but wanting to stay engaged, but not necessarily in the same high demand position.

It could be a job that, in fact … in a factory plant in Germany they found just changing the, the timing of a belt could keep people performing at, at … you know, the maximum level, and that meant changing the timing of a, of a conveyor belt by seconds … not by even fully minutes.

It could also be changing the time and timing of work so that people have more control over when they work. They may not necessarily want to work full time, they might want to work part year … or part time.

And interestingly enough … again from Germany … and a German think tank, what they found trumped all the other work conditions, was having people work on mixed age teams.

So not having an age segregated team doing the work. You know, older workers working on this, on this project … younger workers working on this one. But rather a team that mixes ages up. That was … in the case of this … of this German study … the most effective way to keep older people engaged in the work place.

HEFFNER: Do public employees make up the largest contingent of workers in our country?

CHRISTENSEN: I … you know … that’s a very good question … I don’t think they make up the largest … I think they certainly make up one of the most significant. And, and in many cases … the public sector … the Federal government has led the way … at least with regard to one type of work condition … which is flexibility.

So that the Federal government was the first to really institute … in the seventies … a major flex-time program. And the Federal government in the nineties and again now has been implementing tele-commuting … the ability to work at home or remotely instead of coming into the office every day.

HEFFNER: Has tele-commuting proven to be a major factor in this reorganization?

CHRISTENSEN: You know … it’s, it’s not …there’s not a simple answer to that. The fact is, is that tele-commuting works best when someone can work remotely one or two days a week. It is not an arrangement that works best from either the firm’s perspective or the employees perspective if it’s five days a week … week in and week out.

The firm … the employer wants to see the, the employee and the employee wants to be engaged. And so, the best arrangement with tele-commuting is typically informally and it’s typically on, on a part week basis … one to two days a week.

HEFFNER: You say “informally” … that puzzles me.

CHRISTENSEN: Because I think … you know … I …

HEFFNER: Sort of a catch-as-catch-can …

CHRISTENSEN: Well, it, it … it is a … it’s a troubling notion because it’s … it creates special deals …


CHRISTENSEN: … and, and that can create inequities … but when you said earlier on, Dick, about, well, a family-friendly … I think what we’re really addressing is, is the fact that we are living through … what is the equivalent of the Industrial Revolution.

There is a major change, not just in the workforce, there’s a major change in the demands of work. We’re a global economy … we have all sorts of advanced technology which allows people not just to work anytime, any place, but all the time, every place. And we have people, you know, trying to manage all the different demands of the job and their families at all stages of the life course.

So we’re living through a major change in the way work is organized across time and space and the way the workforce has changed.

But we haven’t yet come to recognize it. I think we will look back in 20 or 30 years and see this time period as really the equivalent of an Industrial Revolution, but we’re in a serious lag period right now, where the demands on workers are changing … you work in a, a firm that, that has, you know, a global client base or a global, you know, workforce and you maybe taking calls at all hours of the day or night.

But in many of these firms you’re still expected to show up because the, the, the normative structure of the workplace is still the industrial model … it’s, you know, you’ve got to be present, you’ve got to show up … so we’re living through this, this lag where the workforce has changed, the demands are changed, the technology is facilitating those changes, but the expectations on where work is done and when it is done and even how it’s done has not yet changed.

HEFFNER: Does, does this description make you feel … well, there’s less reason for you to feel it than for me to feel it … to feel as I do … I’m glad I’m not young any more.

CHRISTENSEN: I think it’s really hard … I, I … you know … I want to be, I want to be hopeful, but I see the toll it’s taking on, on American workers and we did fund a great deal of research on what was happening within the American family.

And what came out very clearly is the degree to which working parents felt that they experienced a real time famine. And they felt they were being squeezed. They felt they didn’t … they, they weren’t able to be the kind of parent they wanted and they weren’t able to be the kind of worker they wanted.

And they felt, they felt they were constantly having to face false choices. That, you know, it didn’t have to be like that. And I think very clearly of one woman who was in tears when she told me that, you know, she, she worked at a nursing home … she had to be there at a certain time every morning … she was a single mother … and she would take her sons and she would put them on a public bus every morning and they were seven and five years old … and they would go by themselves to school because if she was five minutes late getting to her work, which was in the opposite direction … she would get docked. And then if she got docked a certain number of times, she would be fired and she could not afford to be fired.

Now that was a false choice. You know there was no reason why a scheduling plan couldn’t have been developed and many firms are doing this whereby she could have come in a little bit later and worked a little bit later.

And that’s where there’s a poverty of imagination. That’s where there’s not really looking at the what the demands of the jobs are and what the, the demands on the workers are and trying to find that sweet spot where both needs can be met.

HEFFNER: You talk about different patterns … a … more progressive patterns abroad and you single out Germany … explain it.

CHRISTENSEN: Well, again, there are fundamental differences between many of the European nations and, and the United States.

One they have a much more elaborated … much more detailed social, social cushion in effect. They’ve got laws that provide for leaves and provide for people to work various hours … not just Germany, but the UK has what’s called a “Right to Request” law. So they’ve got a very different, you know, policy … support system.

They also have, in many cases a different level of unionization … of … you know … of, of efforts to represent workers.

HEFFNER: What … but spell that out … a, a much more powerful union structure?

CHRISTENSEN: Yes. They’ve got a … in many of the European countries … not all of them … but they do have a more powerful union structure.

So, and in our country, as we know … the, the unions … you know, union membership has really decreased over the last several decades.

So, what you have is a different framework in which employers operate. And that creates many constraints on employers … and, and many employers in the US are happy not to have those constraints.

But what it has created, at least in, in many of the nations is, is a framework in which work is treated in a different way. That, you know, that workers can take a leave if there is … a paid leave … if there is a sickness, they can negotiate flexibility without penalty or stigma.

In the US we have much more of a sense … of a voluntary employer adoption of these arrangements. And in some cases and in some firms that’s working well.

I mean we, we have supported the Sloan Awards for business effectiveness and flexibility and over 4,000 companies have applied for that.

And over 2,000 have won that award. And these are companies that are recognized for their own recognition that they are adopting practices … and sometimes they’re policies and sometimes they’re practices … they are not necessarily policies that, that allow people to have more control over when and where they work and they feel it’s in their best interest. They have a more highly engaged workforce which translates into a more productive workforce. They reduce their costs on, on absenteeism and they reduce their costs on recruitment because their attrition rates goes.

So, in those cases, those firms without the kind of legislative framework that much of the European nations have … those firms have recognized that it is in their best interests to, to really re-think how and where work is done.

HEFFNER: You, you talk about the greater strength of unions abroad. That seems to be a movement so contrary to …


HEFFNER: … to our own …


HEFFNER: … do you see any changes in that pattern? And do you see any changes in the workplace thinking … if there are not changes in the strengths of unions?

CHRISTENSEN: Well, I mean I’m not an expert on what the, the unions are doing. From what I, what I see and read, it appears that they are re-thinking more affiliate membership structures, so that, that they don’t necessarily organize workers in the way … and represent them in the way they have.

But there’s an affiliate structure so that people can take advantage of the strength of the unions, particularly in their buying power for insurance or, or other benefits.


CHRISTENSEN: Ahemm, again I think that there is no easy answer to that. That that employees are, particularly if the economy picks up … are going to either be voting with their feet or be more vocal about the fact that it is really hard to do the work that’s expected today …and again, I’m generalizing … and it is so, so … you know what we really have do is pay attention to the industry and the occupation and, you know, the, the regional nature of the work, too.

So, it’s hard to just generalize. But, but it is clear that, that many employees are having a very difficult time. They want to do their best, they want to, to feel they’re as productive as possible … but they are trying … they are also trying to figure out how it is that they can, they can be that way.

HEFFNER: Kathy, is there any indication that creating a 21st century workplace for 21st century families is becoming a political issue?

CHRISTENSEN: I have been amazed at the degree to which it’s not a political issue.


CHRISTENSEN: I, I really have been amazed. You know, the, the demographics started shifting in the eighties with women entering and staying in the workplace … mothers staying in the workplace. The workforce trend towards early retirement started reversing itself in the mid-nineties.

And here we are at 2013 … and our society still is not addressing these issues as if they are public, social issues and our politicians are not talking about these issues publicly.

And, and I, I … you know, I, I marvel at that with great disappointment. And, you know, I think “why is that the case?”, and I think partially it’s because we, as a society, have grown up with the notion of a public sphere, which is work and it’s, you know, the economy and its war and a private sphere which is the family and children and, and all. And, therefore, I think for, for many people there is this desire to keep the private, private. And they’re concerned that if they do go to public … excuse me … if they do go to public with it, it’s going to put themselves at a disadvantage.

And so, what is really needed is a profound shift where we begin to take what has been private and recognize that if millions of people have these private challenges and these private problems, we’ve got a whopping social issue that needs public attention.

And I would hope in the next Presidential election and certainly more of the State Senate elections that the issues that face working families across the life course and it’s not just when people have children … but that these issues really get addressed and we publicly start discussing what are the public responsibilities to ensuring that families can function as well as they can as families … that older people have as many opportunities in the workplace as younger people.

And that, that to me is something that I really hope happens in the next four to six years.

HEFFNER: Geographically … are there places in the United States where your wish …and my wish and I would think any thoughtful person’s wish that …


HEFFNER: … the public and private come together this way …

CHRISTENSEN: Right. Right.

HEFFNER: Is happening.

CHRISTENSEN: Well, in, in small ways. The State of California and the State of New Jersey both have paid family leave. And those are the only two states that actually have paid family leave and are functioning to pay it. The state of Washington has adopted legislation, but it’s not yet had the mechanism for paying it.

In those cases it became a public, social issue. But in, in other ways I don’t … you know … I think that there have been a number of movements at municipal levels to adopt paid sick days. But what working families need … is … yes, certainly the ability to take time off from work … through the … through paid sick days or paid leave. But they need to have more ability to have flexibility and control over their work when they’re at work. And that has yet to become …

HEFFNER: What do you mean “while they’re at work”?

CHRISTENSEN: Well, the thing is, is, you know, a person wants to work fulltime.


CHRISTENSEN: And the convention is they show up at nine and they leave at 5 or they show up at 8, they leave at 4. Well, that might not work in all cases. Maybe they need to take a break in the middle of the day to take their spouse to the doctor. Maybe they need to come in a half an hour later because the plumber will only come during conventional work hours.

HEFFNER: It happens.

CHRISTENSEN: Yes, I know. And it affects everyone. Maybe it’s the woman who worked in the … you know … the nursing home … found if she could just have another 20 minutes, she could take her children to school and get to work and be on time. So these are all people, these are examples of people who want to work and who earn and who are working fulltime, but the fact is, if they just had more ability to control when they might work over the course of a day … or when they might work over the course of the week, within the bounds of the firm, then everyone else would benefit.

I mean what we do know from a national survey … the Families and Work Institute recently did … was that that kind of flex-time is increasing. The ability to have more control over hours … but other kinds of, of flexibility that require the firm paying, such as paid sick days … or paid leave is actually declining.

HEFFNER: Kathy Christensen I’m so pleased that you were willing to come and talk about this subject today because it’s obviously so important for us all. Thank you again for joining me on The Open Mind.


HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

And do visit the Open Mind Website at thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/openmind.