In the past year, the need for paid family and medical leave has been in the national spotlight unlike ever before, as more advocates have joined the effort to secure a federal law, private companies have stepped up to establish policies of their own, and candidates all the way up to the presidential level have proposed paid leave plans.
Voters are increasingly recognizing paid leave as a key issue too, as we are confronted with the fact that our nation’s workplace policies are at odds with our need to care for our families. Millennials should be no exception, and yet our voices are too often missing from the national conversation about paid leave. Here’s why that must change:
1. We often expect that employers will provide paid leave as a basic workplace support, but it’s inexcusably rare.
For most of us, it seems like a no-brainer that employers would provide paid leave so their employees can take time to care for a new child or a family member with a serious health condition, or to recover from a serious medical event, like childbirth or surgery. After all, our nation’s unpaid leave law — the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA — has been in place for more than 20 years now and has significantly changed the culture and expectations around the right to take leave.
But the FMLA doesn’t guarantee leave for everyone, and it only provides for unpaid leave. In reality, only 14 percent of people have paid family leave through their employers and 40 percent have access to paid medical leave for serious illnesses or injuries through employer-provided temporary disability insurance. Unless you’re one of the few who won the “boss lottery” or are strategic or lucky enough to live in one of the four states with paid leave programs, you may have to consider crowdfunding as a way to take the time you need.
2. The United States is *the worst* when it comes to providing new parents and working people paid leave.
To say that the current system doesn’t work is an understatement. The United States is the only industrialized country without national paid family leave protections. As our world and economy have become more global, the stark contrast between us and other countries on this basic support has become more apparent — and it’s hurting our global competitiveness. Nearly 40 percent of millennials say they would consider moving to another country with better parental leave benefits. Many countries have set up paid leave programs as a form of social insurance, promoting economic stability by ensuring people have a portion of their wages while they take the time they need. If most everywhere else in the world can provide paid leave, why can’t the United States?
3. Paid leave is an equal pay issue.
Most millennials say they care about equal pay for women. If you care about closing the gender wage gap, you should care about paid family and medical leave. Women often experience the greatest differences in pay compared to men during their childbearing years. Because despite the fact that mothers are breadwinners in 50 percent of households, they still tend to be the primary caregivers for their families. It’s no surprise then that women are more likely to leave their jobs if they can’t take paid leave to care for a new child, which can mean decreased lifetime earnings and less retirement security. Paid leave helps new moms who want to keep working stay in the workforce. Some research even shows that women’s wages increase over time when men take leave to care for a new child.
4. Paid leave for women and men promotes gender equality.
Most millennials envision playing an active and equal role in parenting and caregiving. Yet a widespread lack of access to paid leave makes it difficult for both parents to care for a new child without risking their families’ economic security. The persistence of the gender wage gap only makes this worse because, in two-parent families, it is often more cost-effective to have the person who is paid less stay home. And guess what? In opposite sex couples, that person is frequently the mom. As a result, women often bear the primary responsibility of caregiving while their male partners miss out on critical time with their child. This can reinforce outdated gender norms and stereotypes and hinder all parents in a household from being fully engaged as caregivers. Paid leave must be offered equally, and in equal amounts, regardless of gender.
5. Many of us are — or will soon be — “sandwiched” between the caregiving needs of kids and aging parents and grandparents.
Pop culture has tried to brand millennials as self-involved and lazy, but we are — and will increasingly be — the ones who care for our grandparents, parents and future generations, especially as people continue to live longer and need assistance. Ten million millennials are already providing care to adult family members, which represents one-fourth of all adult caregivers nationwide. A 2016 survey of millennials conducted by MTV found that 37 percent said they have taken time off from work to help out a sick or aging family member, and 44 percent said they think they’ll need to take time off from work to care for a new child in the next five years.* In other words, if we haven’t already, most of us will at some point have to navigate caregiving, whether for children or adults — or both — and our jobs. Paid leave provides stability during these demanding times.
6. Your boss shouldn’t be able to decide who counts as “family.”
Families come in all shapes and sizes, and the ability to take time to care or heal shouldn’t depend on what your family looks like. Parental leave policies offered by employers often only apply to new birth mothers and/or provide less leave for “secondary caregivers,” which is usually code for “not the birth mother.” The idea of “primary” and “secondary” parents is archaic — not to mention that these types of polices often offensively exclude same-sex couples and parents who adopt. Paid family and medical leave programs enacted by states and proposed at the national level recognize the importance of inclusiveness when it comes to defining and caring for our families.
7. Paid leave is not just about caring for new babies or an ill family member. It’s about self-care too.
Sadly, I don’t mean the self-care you practice when you try out a new restaurant with a friend or get your nails done. I mean the time almost all of us will at some point need to seek medical treatment or recover from a serious medical condition. It’s already hard enough to navigate the health care system and pay medical bills without worrying whether you can afford to go without income or risk losing your job in order to get better. The expected retirement age for the millennial generation is pushing past 70, so the likelihood that you will have a serious medical issue or some type of serious injury before retirement is pretty high. A national paid leave law would enable us to better care for ourselves without jeopardizing our finances or our jobs.
8. To a generation saddled by education debt and depressed wages, the economic stability paid leave can provide is important.
Millennials acquired high levels of education debt at the same time wages stagnated due to the recession and slow economic growth. This has left many of us in particularly precarious positions when it comes to managing life’s most stressful or joyous events. A 2012 survey by Pew Research Center found that around 20 percent of adults ages 18 to 34 said they had postponed getting married and/or having a baby because of the “bad economy.” Paying off education debt or your ability to make ends meet or save for the future should not determine whether you can start a family or care for a sick loved one or yourself, no matter your situation. When it matters most, paid leave lets people put family and their health first.
9. Access to paid leave can provide security in the gig economy.
Some may (wrongly) argue that the private sector can address the nation’s paid leave crisis on its own, but for the more than one-third of millennials who are independent workers in the gig economy, that simply is not realistic. Portable benefits like those made possible through a paid leave insurance program are tied to you as a worker rather than to your employer, which means you can take paid leave no matter where you work or the type of work you do. Simply put, paid leave is critical to our generation’s financial security and meeting a diversity of needs in a constantly changing economy and workforce.
10. Our voices are critical to securing paid leave for all working people — and we have many tools to help make them heard.
The expectations and demands of the millennial generation have already pushed employers to change the way workplaces run, including by making them more flexible and family friendly. We’ll soon be the largest generation in the workforce and, for the first time ever, we match baby boomers as the largest share of the voting electorate. Policymakers and advocates are listening to where we stand. Now is the time to show them that we understand how important paid leave is for our future, that we want lawmakers who will make paid leave a priority, and that we won’t back down until no one has to choose between health or family and a job. Here are three ways you can help: