On social media, the verdict from the majority was swift: The child-free were being selfish. And indeed, it’s hard to feel a ton of sympathy for some of the country’s most handsomely compensated workers when they complain about equally privileged colleagues who are currently struggling. Laszlo Bock, Google’s former head of human resources, seemed to speak for many readers when he told the Times that, “for people to get upset enough to say that ‘I feel this is unfair’ demonstrates a lack of patience, a lack of empathy and a sense of entitlement.”
But while it’s easy to accuse the childless of acting entitled for objecting to these changes, that reaction misses the point — and frankly buys into some very toxic ideas about work itself. Work is not your family and it is not your friend; the only way your employer shows how much they value you is in how they compensate you.
Right now, a great many parents say that workplace expectations are simply too high to be met while also trying to do things like oversee a Zoom calculus class or make sure your toddler doesn’t drink bleach or flush his gerbil when you’re on a client call. Non-parents meanwhile report that assumptions about their free time and the total obliteration of boundaries between work and life means they are being asked to do much more at work without an attendant increase in compensation; complain, though, and you’re accused of lacking empathy — even if the complaint isn’t about parents getting some necessary breathing room, but about the childless being asked to shoulder more work indefinitely. No one is happy, and as the Times piece shows, many workers are sniping about each other.
The answer, then, isn’t for people without kids to get mad at parents for failing at being superhuman, or for parents to be angry when the childless voice their frustration at having to shoulder a heavier burden at work. A better solution would be to expect more from employers. Workplaces either need to scale down expectations across the board so that parents can step back and those who are not caretakers can continue to work as usual, or workplaces need to scale up hiring in order to fill the gap.
If the paid work that parents can’t manage falls to the childless — who already had full workloads, especially at big tech companies that have long erased the distinction between work and life — of course there is going to be resentment and anger. That’s not a lack of empathy or a sense of entitlement. It’s a correct assessment of the fact that your workplace is exploiting you because of your parental status, and pitting parents against non-parents instead of solving the problem at hand: Too much work and not enough people to do it.
This system — obscene workplace expectations coupled with few worker protections, no cultural commitment to having a right to life outside of work, and an unspoken conclusion that we all choose our choices and just have to figure it out on our own — is terrible for everyone.
Parents and other caretakers absolutely do need to be accommodated in this moment. But this emergency is going to stretch on for many more months and could go for another year or more. It should be up to the employer to figure out how to manage that sustainably, not up to workers to redistribute already crushing workloads according to who is perceived as having more free time. Pushing parents — and again, mostly mothers, an entire generation of whom are at risk of taking unrecoverable career and earnings hits — out of the workforce is not the answer. Neither is pushing the extra work onto non-parents. And at a time when unemployment rates are high and people can work from anywhere, there is no excuse for not hiring enough people to make sure that working hours are reasonable for everyone.
Our workplaces already ask too much of us. Buying into a parents vs. non-parents mindset, though, misses the real problems: a government that has failed to meet families’ needs (let alone adequately combat this pandemic) and unfair workplaces that demand too much and give too little.