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Without Strong Family Leave Policies, It’s the Baby Boomers That Will Really Suffer

The number of people 65 or older is expected to double by more than 30 million in the next 15 years. Many will need people to take off work to care for them.

flickr / a4gpa

It is well documented that paid leave policies are beneficial to babies, to parents of both sexes, and to the businesses who employ those parents, too. But the truth is, parental leave only affects a small part of the working population each year. A bigger and growing part of the population are encountering work and life balance issues because they need to care for an aging parent. And it better happen soon: the amount of people 65 or older is expected to double by more than 30 million in the next 15 years.

“We’re going to be looking at a care gap as the baby boomers age,” says AARP family caregiving expert Amy Goyer. Currently there are seven possible caregivers, on average, for every person who is 80 years older; by 2030 that number will shrink to three. Smaller families, a growth in the divorce rate, and late marriages are all contributing factors.

A new report from The National Partnership for Women and Families confirms that the wave of aging baby boomers is likely to cause a huge burden for working people. It adds that paid leave policies relieve significant financial and time burdens experienced by younger generations,

But back to the present. Increasingly, millennial are taking on caregiving tasks for the elderly: one in four elder caregivers are now between ages 18 and 34. At least part of those belong to a group some are calling the “sandwich generation” — those that care for both young children and aging parents. “Young people are increasingly becoming caregivers, and quickly understanding that it’s a huge responsibility. It can lead to pressure,” says Goyer.

Part of that pressure is maintaining a job while attending to the urgent health matters of a loved one. While, yes, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 promises the protection of an employee’s job during leave to care for an ailing parent, but that leave is unpaid. That’s why a broader definition of leave is so important.

Varying degrees of such plans are sweeping through the finance and health care sector, as well as academia. Last fall, for example, accounting firm Deloitte changed its family leave policy to include up to sixteen paid weeks per calendar year of paid leave for a number of life events, including elder care.

Jen Fisher, the U.S. Well-Being leader for Deloitte, says that the policy is the result of a workforce that now includes four generations. “For many that fall into the sandwich generation, they may be caring for children and parents at the same time,” she says. “Each family is unique, and we want to create programs that are inclusive and flexible.”

Tech giants are expanding family leave, too: In June, Microsoft announced a policy that allows employees to take up to four weeks of paid leave per year to take care of immediate family members with severe health conditions. And a recent Facebook policy allows up to six weeks of paid leave to care for a sick relative.

Many are arguing that expanded leave policies not only benefit employees, but also the bottom line of a business.

“When employers don’t respond to a caregiving employee’s needs, the outcome for either isn’t great,” says Drew Holtzapfel, a Convener for ReACT, a coalition of corporations addressing eldercare in the workplace. “Being a caregiver is a risk factor — if you’re taking care of someone else, you’re less likely to take care of yourself, and some chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, can go unaddressed. For an employer, that might mean higher health care costs,” says Holtzapfel.

But for employees, this is an issue that goes beyond dollars and cents. Goyer is a caregiver for her father, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s. “People always remark about how it’s such an intense experience, which it is,” she says. “But you get these flickering moments of connection, and realize that this is one of the most rewarding things you will ever do.”