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Addressing Our Poverty of Imagination – Kathleen Christensen

Contributor: Shreya Zaveri

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life Stew Friedman spoke with Dr. Kathleen Christensen, Program Director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Working Longer Program, and a pioneer in the field of the work-family research. Dr. Christensen has been involved in the planning of the 2014 White House Summit on working families as well as the 2010 White House Forum on workplace flexibility. She is also the author of several books including, most recently, Workplace Flexibility: Realigning 20th Century Jobs for a 21st Century Workforce.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stew Friedman: You are one of the pioneers in the field. Back in 1994, you did research on home-based work during the eighties, and you were recruited from your academic position to join the Sloan Foundation where you established and led what would become its Workplace and Working Families program. Tell us about some of the major changes in the field of work and life over the last few decades.

Kathleen Christensen: Kathleen ChristensenThe greatest change is that there is much greater involvement by the research and academic communities to understand what has happened to the American family. This has extended not only to the stages where children are born and reared until the time they leave home, but also looking at the later stages of life. We have begun to conceptualize work-life as spanning all the decades of one’s life, beyond the decades of productively working and managing caregiving responsibilities. There’s a much greater understanding of what’s going on in the family and how responsibilities can change as families age.

The key to the entire notion of work-life is the way work is organized in time and space; the demands of work in the global economy affect the adult worker as well as the other members of the family. What became clear in the research that the Sloan Foundation funded in the mid-1990s is that there was a structural misalignment between work organization in time and space and in the needs of an increasingly diverse workforce.

SF: Can you explain where the structural misalignment was seen?

KC: The workplace as we know it is an artifact of history. Henry Ford was seen as a genius in the early 1900s when he decided to cut the workweek to 40 hours and which was put into law in the 1930s with the Standard Labor Act. That was really the last time that there were any structural changes in the hours of work and in worker protections as to when and how they work. By the late 1990s, the workplace was still a legacy design of a time when most of the workers were male breadwinners. In the 20s and 30s, there was the notion of the family wage. Women were not to work, and the husbands and fathers were to earn enough to support the family. Working full-time all-year-round made sense for the male breadwinner then, but by the late 1990s it was a different situation. The workforce was increasingly mixed, but the workplace had kept the same structure. The notion of someone taking a leave was seen as deviant. We did not have laws allowing for short- or long-term leave. It could be done at the privilege of the employer, but there wasn’t a structure in place for it. As a result, the research showed a great deal of fallout for the family. The long hours made it difficult to schedule time with the family for school events, for example. There was a need for a structural change in order to meet the needs of a more diverse workforce—for men and women across ages.

SF: What has been the biggest impact of the various centers the Sloan Foundation has sponsored over the last few decades in terms of generating new and useful change in the structure of the workplace?

KC: First, it really built the case that we had a very different workforce. We saw that working mothers compared to mothers not in the workforce were losing almost a night’s worth of sleep per week. We saw that men who retired abruptly in their late sixties or early seventies had much greater health problems. If a man went at age seventy from full-time work to full-time retirement, his odds of greater illness and mortality were increased compared to men who were able to phase into retirement. It would seem that the loss of identity plays a major role in that, but it’s difficult to prove causality. We were able to understand and document some of the costs that were being experienced by employees and families because people were working longer. We launched a campaign in the early 2000s to increase voluntary employer adoption of workplace flexibility. I would say one of the major legacies of our efforts was to put workplace flexibility in the front and center of public consciousness—to make it a legitimate area of discussion within the workplace and to make it a topic of conversation in Washington so that in policy circles there was recognition of the needs of American families for greater flexibility in the workplace.

SF: What’s your assessment—how far have we come and how far do we still have to go?

KC: We had two goals at the launch of our campaign in 2002. The first was to make flexibility a compelling national issue, and the second was to make it a standard feature in the workplace. Great strides were made for the first. One would be hard pressed to look at the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, or even academic journals and not see the workplace flexibility issue in one form or another. It’s a public topic now. But it’s still not the standard in workplaces. If you asked how much control a given employee has for when, where, and how they work, you would see major holes. Virtually every large corporation has flexibility on their books and maintain that they value it. Some really walk the talk and make flexibility a core feature of their work. We may even see pockets within a firm where employees are able to negotiate with their supervisors, but that flexibility may not be widespread throughout the firm. We also see many other organizations of different sizes that are in favor of workplace flexibility, but just don’t know how to implement it.

SF: Do you think it’s a matter of education then, and not just economics?

KC: I think the phrase ‘We don’t know how to do it’ covers a multitude of issues. It can mean ‘we don’t really care’ as well as ‘we don’t understand.’ Unfortunately, in many organizations, supervisors and employees see each other as a problem with when it concerns flexibility. Supervisors think employees are too entitled and that flexibility is not a right, whereas employees think that managers simply don’t understand. There are a number of ongoing efforts that make it clear that workplace flexibility can be a win-win—for example, the Society of Human Resource Management does a good job of articulating this. Anyone who’s seen the incredible results in organizations that really understand the power of flexibility has seen that the outcomes really prove themselves. But particularly in the last few years of tough economic times, organizations have hunkered down on new initiatives like these.

SF: They’ve retrenched, yes. I’ve seen some research that shows that the universal flexibility standards were scaled back in the wake of the Great Recession.

KC: If you talk to any of the leading companies, they recognize that as the economy gets stronger and job creation, wages, and salaries increase, they have to keep their best and brightest. As the economy gets stronger, and they are unsatisfied with their workplaces, many employees start looking around.

SF: Do you predict then that we’ll see more investment in workplace flexibility going forward?

KC: My instinct is yes. There are four generations in the workplace now. Supervisors need to handle the needs of Gen-X, Gen-Y, Boomers, and some of the Great Generation too. My sense is that flexibility is a very low-cost way of recruiting and retaining a solid workforce as well as the simultaneous effects of reducing costs and increasing productivity and revenues.

SF: What’s the key to moving the needle on this lack of knowledge and this fear of letting go control of the how and when of work?

KC: We have to reframe the conversation about flexibility. We have to translate from a rigid to an agile, fluid workplace. The term ‘flexibility’ is not making it to the C-suites; it’s not a term that has a lot of business imperative to it, perhaps because work and life are still seen as a tradeoff game where the employer gives something up to provide for the employee’s family life. It’s also seen as a gendered issue. As the workforce ages, it will come to be seen less as a women’s issue (especially because older workers are wanting to keep working, but only part time), but I’m still seeing flexibility referred to as a women’s issue. It you look at the surveys, men have just as high of needs for flexibility as do women.

SF: I’m personally aware of that, but people in my audiences often say yeah right [laughs]. Our research at Wharton shows this sentiment that your mentioned—that young men, in particular, anticipate as much workplace conflict as young women.

KC: Recent research from Harvard says that by mid-career, people who don’t have flexibility begin to get worn down. Men’s careers come into more prominence as women’s careers take a backslide. So while flexibility is a good transitional term, I think now we need more business-oriented language to continue the conversation. I’m still working on that new language. People are as committed to work as they’ve ever been but are increasingly dissatisfied.

SF: It’s a ubiquitous cry—a sense of being overwhelmed and under-fulfilled. Tell us what the main objective of the Working Longer program is.

KC: Our objective is to build a research base that is understanding of the aging workforce in the US. People are increasingly working beyond retirement age. In the mid-1990s, the trend towards early retirement began reversing itself. College-educated workers, even more than high school graduates, are working beyond conventional retirement age. However, the demand side, the employers, have not recognized in the US as they have in, say, Germany, how to handle and harness the productivity of the aging workforce. The major priority here is graceful exits, which I think is misguided. I hope to ultimately see a greater understanding on the demand side about the contributions of an aging workforce and to inform a policy discussion on the matter. Our labor and employment laws were written 85 years ago; they need to be able to keep pace with an aging workforce.

SF: So what can listeners do?

KC: Have a conversation and start telling their stories. There’s oftentimes a poverty of imagination. People can’t envision working differently, but when they have the opportunity to think collectively and creatively, they realize there can be many ways to organize work. We’re just beginning to tap into that.

SF: Yes. It’s an age of experimentation and revolutionary change in our field.

To find out more about Dr. Christensen’s book, Workplace Flexibility: Realigning 20th Century Jobs for a 21st Century Workforce, and the Sloan Foundation, you can visit them online or follow her on Twitter @K_E_Christensen.


Join Work and Life next Tuesday at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.

About the author

Shreya Zaveri Shreya Zaveriis a junior in the Wharton School studying Management and Marketing and OPIM with an International Relations minor. She also serves as a vice president for the Work-Life Integration Project Student Advisory Board.

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