Changing Work-Life Paradigms

Brad Harrington is the Executive Director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family.  This blog was originally posted in our member newsletter.

This past year in 2010 the Boston College Center for Work & Family celebrated our 20th Anniversary.  As our anniversary year commenced, I shared my reflections on The Future of the Work-Life Field in the Sloan Network Blog.  Over the past year, I have been discussing my ideas with lots of people and have continued to refine and hopefully strengthen my thinking. As I’ve continued working my way through my vision for the field, I’ve come to realize that it’s past time for a few long held beliefs to be updated – time for a few paradigm shifts. None of these will come as a great surprise to you who work in this area every day, but an intellectual realization is not equivalent to hitting a profound reset in our thinking and our actions. So here is my list:

Work-life is about reducing conflict – Work-life is about finding meaning: This was the subject of my December blog which can be seen on the Sloan Network Blog. The bottom line: Flexibility matters and given the important White House conference that was held on that topic, this is no time to let that agenda item slip. But when people reflect on their professional and personal lives, I doubt that eliminating scheduling conflicts will be the thing that most mattered. I have a feeling it will be something more akin to, “Did my life and my work have purpose and meaning?” If the answer is yes, which I sincerely hope it will be for most people, then our work-life efforts will be seen as a great success. If the answer is no, then we will have somehow missed the big picture.

Work-life is about child care – Work-life is about elder care. Everyone knows that the birth rate in the world’s developed countries is extremely low. We are also aware that the world’s population is aging dramatically thanks to that large group of baby boomers and the extension of life spans. The problem we are facing, today and in the future, is how those of us that have lived in a mobile society will provide care to our aging parents and other loved ones who may live far away and need care for an extended and uncertain period of time.  As expensive and complex as the child care system is (especially in the USA), it can’t begin to compare with the complexity, cost, and toll that elder care will exact in the coming years.

Work-life is a woman’s issue – Work-life is a man’s issue. Everyone’s heard me and many others talk about how the US is becoming a woman’s nation. Women have made great strides and now far exceed men in their achievements in higher education. Women are beginning to dominate in many industries and now are the primary breadwinners in 38% of US households. Evidence would suggest that this trend is going to continue. It’s time to get our minds around the fact that it’s men who now need to step up and fully internalize what it means to be a working professional and a full-time parent and that employers can play an important role in helping them do so. We began to try to better understand what work-life means to men though interviewing fathers in our study The New Dad: Exploring Fatherhood Within A Career Context. Judging from the response we received to that report, this issue is ripe and ready for more research and discussion.

It’s one thing to understand these issues and another to really “get it.” When we get it, we move our efforts ambitiously in new directions to embrace these new realities. I am not presenting these as a “from-to” model (i.e. I’m not saying work-life is no longer a woman’s issue, I’m simply saying it is every bit as much a man’s issue.  And I’m not suggesting child care is not a work-life issue; I’m suggesting that the challenges of elder care may very soon elapse child care as a problem we need to address. )

There are other paradigm shifts that need to occur as well, but I’ll save those for another day. This column is long past due and three paradigm shifts per week are as much as anyone can safely absorb without terrible side effects. Trust me, I’m a doctor.

Brad Harrington



The Boston College Center for Work & Family is a global leader in helping organizations create effective workplaces that support and develop healthy and productive employees. Please visit us at
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One Response to Changing Work-Life Paradigms

  1. Pingback: It's Tuesday, let's talk | Connecting Career and Life

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