As Parents Age, Baby Boomers Struggle to Cope

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As Parents Age, Baby Boomers Struggle to Cope

Newspaper article

By: Jane Gross

Date: March 25, 2006

Source: Gross, Jane. "As Parents Age, Baby Boomers Struggle to Cope." New York Times (March 25, 2006).

About the Author: Jane Gross is a staff writer with the New York Times. The New York Times is one of the nation's largest daily newspapers, with a circulation of over one million copies.


The period of population growth in the Unites States known as the Baby Boom commenced in 1946 with the return of millions of military personnel to the U.S. from their service during the Second World War. Social scientists generally regard the end of the Baby Boom as occurring in 1964, the year that represents the beginning of a sharp decline in the American birth rate that continued for over twenty years. The year 2006 is significant as it represents the year in which the first year of the Baby Boom demographic reaches age sixty. This particular segment of the post war generation is a part of the most multi-layered family dynamic ever observed in America history, as the sixty-year-old "boomer" is often a part of an extended family structure that includes their own parent or parents who are over eighty years of age, their children ranging in age from teenagers to young adults, and possibly grandchildren. Divorce and remarriage have created the potential for further family extensions and blendings for these first Baby Boomers, circumstances that often impose care responsibilities in every direction.

The familial responsibilities faced by the Baby Boom generation to contribute to the care of their own parents often creates significant pressure on these persons in their work environment. This class of employee is faced with the challenge of balancing their employment responsibilities with elder care obligations. Elder care can manifest itself in a broad spectrum of demands upon an employee's time, ranging from the taking of personal telephone calls during the work day, to the need for flexible work hours in order to deliver care to the parent. Elder care can also involve responding to emergencies that may take an employee away from their work on short notice.

It was the Baby Boom generation that served to legitimize child care arrangements as an appropriate extension of how parents organized their family lives in relation to their daily employment obligations. Elder care is not so established or respected in the culture of corporate America.

Presenteeism is a concept that has evolved in the context of the issues created by elder care and the obligation faced by many American employees to assist an older parent during what is ostensibly the regular work day. Where absenteeism is defined as a frequent or chronic inability of an employee to attend their work on a regular basis, presenteeism has two distinct connotations. The first is as an antonym to absenteeism; where an employee puts in 'face time' at their place of employment, no matter whether they are sick, injured, or otherwise limited in their productivity. The second meaning of presenteeism is where the employee is physically present at their workplace, but is either distracted by their external responsibilities, such as elder care, or where the employee takes unsanctioned and unreported time out of the work day to attend to their parent's needs, such as shopping, domestic chores, or transporting the parent to appointments.


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The article highlights an emerging problem rooted in the widely held attitude of American employers regarding employee involvement in the daily care of their children in contrast with the efforts made by many employees to assist their own aging parents. In most of the world's cultures, including the United States, there exists both a legal and moral duty to support a dependent, whether the dependent is a child or an aging parent. In the current American corporate culture, child care is a well established aspect of employment; taking time from one's work to attend to an educational, medical or social need of one's child is an accepted part of the modern American workplace.

There is a significant irony in the fact that the Baby Boom generation was the force instrumental in making child care a prominent feature of modern employment, a trend that began amidst much controversy in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As women began to both enter the workforce in record numbers as well as to maintain a career path after giving birth to their children, child care, both in-home and that provided by third party organizations, became an accepted part of the daily workday routine of millions of American workers. The Baby Boom generation is now faced with both the cost and the strain upon workplace environments created by elder care requirements.

The cost of presenteeism in all of its forms is a significant one. In one 2004 study published in the-Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, presenteeism, including undocumented absences by employees to assist a family member, was estimated to cost business 255 dollars per employee per year, a figure that represents sixty percent of the total cost attributable to the lost productivity caused by illness.

Presenteeism and the often hidden impact upon corporate productivity caused by absence from work and distractions while physically present at work pose more significant problems than does simple absenteeism. It is estimated that approximately fifty-nine million American workers do not have any form of paid sick leave; thirty percent of the American workforce enjoy the benefits of employment where they may attend to a sick child without consequence. There are no significant corresponding offerings of coverage for elder care, a circumstance that sometimes drives employees to not disclose the nature of their time away from the workplace to attend to such duties.

United States Census data confirms the demographic shift to an older American society where there are an ever increasing number of persons who are most likely to require the assistance of their children with their ongoing needs. The persons providing such elder care themselves are also likely to be older. By the year 2010, the Census estimates that for the first time in its history, fifty-one percent of the American workforce will be over the age of forty. By the year 2020, twenty percent of the American workforce will be over the age of fifty-five, compared to thirteen percent of that demographic in the year 2000.

Elder care insurance programs are generally in their infancy. Unlike traditional child daycare, where the costs are relatively fixed and predictable year to year, elder care is variable due to the unpredictable nature of the elder person's needs. Corporations have been resistant to providing such programs as an employment benefit due to their cost.

Proponents of elder care as a formal aspect of the American employment benefits landscape point to the greater honesty and less stress that would result if employees were able to deal with elder care issues in a direct fashion, avoiding the presenteeism identified in the study noted above. Advocates of elder care as an insurable aspect of an employee's relationship to an employer point to the long term financial savings of reduced presenteeism. As with the child care tax credits available to working parents in many jurisdictions, the pronounced shift in American demographics to an older society may drive a similar form of tax relief for those providing elder care.



Cassidy, Thomas. Elder Care. Sacramento, California: Citadel, 2004.

Dychtwald, Ken. Age Power: How the 21st Century will be Ruled by the New Old. New York: Penguin USA, 2000.

Marosy, Jean Paul. A Manager's Guide to Elder Care and Work. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1999.


Goetzel, Ron Z., et al. "Health, Absence, Disability, and Presenteeism Cost Estimates." Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 46 (2004) 4:398-412.

Web sites

Institute for Women's Policy Research. "Fact Sheet." 205 〈〉 (accessed July 27, 2006).

Cornell Chronicle. "Economists coin the term 'presenteeism'-for on the job health slowdowns." April 22, 2004. 〈〉 (accessed July 26, 2006).