A Tale of Two Countries … and Their Respective Challenges

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

For me, the month of March has included more than the run-of-the-mill work and family experiences. Two in particular stand out and speak to the complexities of the global challenges we face in these two related spheres, work and family, which dominate much, if not most, of our daily lives.

On the work front, I had my first opportunity to visit Brazil where we hosted our annual Global Workforce Roundtable Summit with 40 representatives from 14 multi-national companies in attendance. Danielle Hartmann, our Director of Corporate Partnerships, did a wonderful job constructing the agenda and selecting speakers that gave us an in-depth understanding of the laws, cultural norms, and workplace practices that must be understood when working in this vibrant country. The gathering was a great success.

Upon returning to the US and on the family front, my mother, who is now 90, had a series of minor strokes which impacted her significantly. These episodes left my family, and specifically my sister who was her primary caregiver, with the unwelcome decision that our Mom needed around the clock care. Her move to a nursing facility was traumatic and emotional as many of you can personally attest to from your own experience. Ironically, one of my colleagues at the Center was also transitioning her mother to a similar care facility at nearly the same time (that is two people in a Center with a staff of 7). In my case, a sister and her husband who had retired early and had my mother live with them for the past year made the logistics of the move less difficult for the rest of the family – but certainly not for them. I’m not sure what we would have done had my sister and brother-in-law not been able to manage this difficult and complex situation. Their efforts minimized the time impact for the rest of the family, but not the emotional one. In my colleague’s case, the children of her elderly parent were still working so the move was emotionally traumatic and enormously time consuming for all.

Both Brazil and the United States are large countries (populations of 200 million and 300 million respectively). They are both rich in natural resources and have diverse and high impact economies (the 1st and 2nd largest economies in the Western Hemisphere). Brazil is a country that has had many challenges in the past especially on the economic front where they experienced periods of prolonged economic stagnation followed by times of hyper-inflation.

The US has also experienced its own booms and bursting bubbles. In the late 1990’s it was the dotcom meltdown and in the 2000’s the real estate industry. But our swings have not been as dramatic as those of our friends to the South.

But to move away from the macro-issues in both countries for a moment, I’d like to go back to the more personal perspective.

My impressions of Brazil were formed in Sao Paulo which makes any generalizations dangerous at best. It’s like judging the United States from a visit to New York which of course no self-respecting Bostonian would ever do. Brazil is clearly a country on the move with a vibrant, growing economy and a young population (average age is 29), but it faces challenges in terms of sustainability that come with that growth. The three lasting impressions I had of Brazil were its wonderful people, economic growth, and massive traffic jams that seemed just a few cars short of complete gridlock. And this as the city of Sao Paulo continued on a very aggressive business development path. I wondered what could be done to continue to foster the country’s economy while somehow maintaining or improving the quality of life for its citizens.

By contrast, the US is not in a high-growth period. Our economy remains sluggish and our unemployment rate, while hardly the worst of world’s major economies, remains too high. We also have an older population with 13% of our citizens over age 65. With the oldest baby boomers now reaching that age in large numbers that percentage is on the verge of a dramatic increase. As we debate the merits of guaranteed healthcare for all citizens in the nation’s highest court this week (which by contrast is a universal right in Brazil) we face an even larger problem called elder care that we have not begun to fully grasp. With MetLife reporting that the average price for a person to be cared for in a private room in a US nursing home is $70,000 per year, our spending on elder care may make the price of your child’s college education seem affordable. And the emotional toll, time investment, and lost work productivity resulting from this issue may make the economic costs seem like the least of the problem.

March was an excellent reminder for me – both professionally and personally – of the tremendous challenges that confront two great countries as they each search for ways to improve their quality of life. And an equally great reminder of the importance of the work we engage in on a daily basis.



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 www.bc.edu/cwf
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