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The World Outside the Office


When thousands of children visited their parents' workplaces at "Take Our Daughters to Work Day" last month, I hope that what they got to see instead were countless museums of history.

Surely, rapid changes in technology will make today's job site look as foreign to the next generation as, say, copy paper and heavy lead pencils are to video-age journalists. One can only hope that the fractured mess that issues of home, career and family have become in the workplace will also be improved by the time this crop of daughters and sons take their places behind our desks.

The work world has come full circle in the last century -- from company towns that all but forced people's lives and culture to mesh with their occupations, to demands in the 1990s to get jobs to better mesh with outside lives. Like the adolescents who visited their parents on the job, the work-family pressure is another offspring of a baby-boom generation still trying to find its place.

A recent article in The Sun described how the end of the 20th century has blessed us with a smorgasbord of lifestyles -- and how the workplace has become one huge food fight because of it. Working parents feel they don't have enough time for their children. Their co-workers feel they have to carry the load left by moms and dads who rush off for Little League games or ballet lessons. And even households with one parent at home feel discriminated against in everything from public opinion (see: Hillary's cookies) to the U.S. tax code.

To the point that it's become a cliche, it's a given that the American family no longer resembles "Ozzie and Harriet." A Wall Street Journal piece noted that the same percentage of American households don't have telephone service as have two kids being raised by two parents, one of them at home. About six out of every 10 mothers with pre-school aged children work outside the home, double the rate a generation ago.

Most employers, struggling to keep up with technology and takeovers, have been slow to react to the societal shift. Flex time, job-sharing and on-site child care remain foreign concepts to all but the most progressive firms.

Employers, however, can come open for criticism for adopting too accommodating a stance toward working parents. If the company subsidizes on-site day care, for instance, what benefit is offered to workers who don't have children or who don't require day care for them. Parents already get to write off up to $1,000 in taxes for day care for two children, regardless of their wealth. Why should an upper-class family get a tax credit for day care more easily than a middle-class family gets to deduct medical bills?

In attempting to better reflect the juggling act that many of their employees' lives have become, companies face an acrobatic feat of being sensitive to work and family pressures without being discriminatory.

As a man whose wife opted to suspend her own newspaper career to raise our two children at home, I often feel like neither fish nor fowl -- with concerns unlike those of workers without children, or working parents. Yet, after reading about the culture warfare in the workplace, I found myself more sympathetic to the workers without kids who felt they were bearing the burden for someone else's parenting choices.

To be sure, the complaint about workers cutting corners to get to rec leagues and dance rehearsals is overstated. It's certainly the exception, not the rule.

But I took umbrage at a remark by the publisher of a Baltimore newsletter on parenting, who was quoted as saying, in effect, that childless workers can save their social lives for the weekends and that child care is everyone's obligation. That sentiment -- that children are a communal duty rather than an individual responsibility -- is often reflected nowadays in everything from workplace discussions to changes proposed for public schools that amount to glorified, tax-funded, day care in some cases.

Admittedly, though, it does employers no good to ignore the changes that have swept urban America outside the office and factory in the last 10 to 15 years. They are mistaken if they believe there's no relationship between the productivity of their workers and the stability of their lives.

The urgent challenge for companies and their personnel departments, then, will be to adopt policies and practices sensitive to the outside pressures of their workers, whose lives have become so diverse.

Andrew Ratner is the director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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