As the nation's Baby Boomers approach middle age, they face the growing prospect not only of providing care for their children but also for their parents who are living longer and in greater numbers than ever.
And that may represent a costly challenge as well for the nation's employers, who are already under pressure to provide more child-care services and support.
Today, barely 6% of working families resemble the traditional family unit for which most employee benefit programs were designed--namely, "a bread-winning father, a bread-baking mother and a couple of bread-eating kids," said child-care consultant Sandra Burud.
As a result, workplace consultants have begun referring to workers in their 30s and 40s as part of a new generation "sandwiched" between the demands of dependent children and dependent parents.
Those demands as they relate to child care are well known, but there are also substantial and hidden costs for workers and employers in care for the elderly as well, according to a researcher at the University of Southern California.
Andrew E. Scharlach, a senior research associate in gerontology at USC, highlighted the hidden cost of "elder care" as part of a survey of employees at Transamerica Life Cos. in Los Angeles.
As part of the survey, he discovered that the company loses at least $250,000 a year just in wages and benefits--roughly 1,600 working days--paid to employees absent from work to care not for their children but for their own parents. These workers may or may not have children, he noted, but at an average age of 37 they certainly fall smack into the prime child-rearing years.
"This is a much younger age than we anticipated because many previous studies had only surveyed the 40-plus population," Scharlach said. And "at least half" of the workers involved in elder care are in fact still raising children.
According to the USC survey, Transamerica's employees found some current company benefits valuable in meeting their elder-care obligations. Most often cited among helpful benefits were a 5 1/2-hour Friday work shift that the company follows from June through August; flexible starting times (beginning work anytime from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m.), and "family illness hours" (up to 24 company-paid hours off a year to meet needs of ill dependents).
Such benefits can make it easier for employees to visit elderly parents--even those whose every other personal need may be met by such institutions as the sprawling Jewish Homes for the Aging of Greater Los Angeles, home to 900 residents.
These benefits originally were designed to help employees having child-care responsibilities, said David R. Carpenter, Transamerica Life's chairman, who predicted that elder care will soon match child-care in importance as an employee concern.
But very few employers even offer help with child care, according to national surveys conducted in recent years by Summa Associates, a child-care benefits consulting firm based in Pasadena.
"There are probably 100 companies in Los Angeles with some child-care policy," estimated Burud of Summa. Statewide only 230 businesses offered child-care benefits last year, and about as many again allowed employees to devote pretax dollars, deposited in a company-managed fund, to pay for such foreseeable costs as medical and dependent care.
But of the 16,600 California companies having at least 100 employees, she said, only 2% offered dependent-care programs (though that modest percentage is a bit better than the national average.)
"Corporate child care is relatively new," she said, "but it is growing very quickly. There are 10 times as many programs now as there were five years ago, and thousands of companies nationwide are studying plans."
Considerable corporate inertia, based on misconceptions of employee needs, must be overcome, Burud said. First, companies ignore the changed composition of the American family, despite the fact that 85% of their work force will need help with child care at some point. Adding elder care to child care only increases the percentage.
But because some employees fear that speaking up about their dependent-care problems might hurt them at work, many bosses have "no real sense about the magnitude of the problem--and how much it is affecting their bottom line," Burud said. "There's an information gap."
Companies that have embarked upon such programs, however, have found them remarkably productive and cost effective, Burud said. For example, Union Bank recovered $4 in productivity gains for every $3 it spent in operating its new child-care facility at its operations center in Monterey Park, she said. The bank also found that the new program reduced the length of maternity leave employees required, slashed absenteeism and enhanced recruitment.
"It finally is sinking in that women are an essential part of the work force," Burud said.