The idea of parental leave is widely understood and accepted in modern societies. We value the principle that those in the workforce should be able to take time off for the birth of a child: women, of course, but increasingly men as well. How long this lasts and how much they might get paid during leave varies by country and employer, but the principle of supporting childcare while being employed has been established.
But it wasn’t always like this. In the UK, the 1911 National Insurance Act included a maternal health benefit and a one-off maternity grant of 30 shillings (or £162) for insured women. The first maternity leave legislation was introduced in 1975 in the UK, emerging from a huge social shift: the growing presence of women in the workplace and in the public arena, as well as changing social attitudes that women have the right and desire to fulfil their ambitions outside the home, too. Women increasingly felt a need for financial independence and to contribute to the family income.
At the same time, we now have a growing demographic of the elderly – a population more sizeable than in past eras and one that is also living longer. Their extended age also brings new kinds of dependencies and care needs.
Which means that the next big social shift is now upon us: caregiving for the elderly. And in particular, caregiving by the "sandwich generation" for parents and children. It is a pressing, rapid social shift and it is expected to only grow in magnitude and impact in the coming years.
These men and mostly women typically fall in the 35-54 age range, although this varies by country. While the term "women in the middle" has existed since 1981, the number of sandwich generation caregivers is now growing significantly, and with increased lifespans, more of an ageing population and people having children later, this number is further set to rise. As anyone who has cared for either children or the elderly will tell you, these are difficult, draining and time-consuming tasks.
Now imagine doing them both at the same time while managing a full-time job. And if you are working and enjoying your work, why would you want to give up contributing to society and to the workplace?
We must, therefore, not wait any further before tackling this sandwich generation crisis at the workplace.
It is already engulfing a generation of caregivers and is only set to grow, which means we need to get our workplaces ready now. This is for the sake of not just the women themselves, but also for our employers, the economy, and our physical and mental well-being. Across the world, societies need happy and healthy women who are flourishing, doing well and contributing to work.
We need to talk bluntly and urgently about sandwich generation women, and what happens to them in the workplace. And for me, it is not just a significant social crisis, it’s personal, because I am one of those women.
From a societal and workplace perspective, this age bracket is the time when employees are flourishing, gaining experience and skills. Employees in this range are often at the peak of their career, bringing value to organisations. But we also know that the pressure of caregiving is so immense, for women especially, that they often inevitably fall out of the workforce.
If women are falling out of the workforce as result of a crisis that we can see happening in front of our eyes, it is harmful for society as well as to women's self-development, long-term successes and their financial stability with regard to their retirement planning. It's also bad news for employers who need talented staff, in an era in which we are trying to rebalance gender representation.
Employers, policymakers and industries the world over need to address these concerns. Plus, once out of the other side of the sandwich generation (children older, parents perhaps sadly no longer on the scene), it is better to keep them in the workforce than to lose them and have to re-integrate them later at higher cost. Besides, the flipside of multiple responsibilities is that with the right support, it can, in fact, make you more creative and productive in the time that you have.
It is hard to talk about caregiving without worrying about being seen as weak or uncommitted to work. And particularly in the West, where individualism and nuclear families are often the norm, there can often be little understanding or societal openness about caregiving for the elderly.
Employers everywhere have a role to play and it is in their own interest to start addressing this.