The policy changes we need for more work-life balance

Shorter work weeks for longer work lives? 

It’s a challenge to balance time at work with time at home and with family. Many of us feel it, whether we’re caring for young kids or our aging parents, trying to balance work with school or professional development, or dealing with physical or mental ill health in ourselves or our loved ones. 

For too many younger people, work-life balance is crowded out by conflicting trends. The unstable work of a gig economy that too often relies on part-time and temporary labour, with fewer workplace protections and benefits. And the rising costs of life’s necessities — especially housing — which are increasingly out of reach of local wages. This squeeze ramps up pressure to put in even more hours of paid work, to try and earn enough to keep up. 

While young people do report that finding balance is very important to them, they also worry that they can’t afford to reduce their work hours, or that they feel the need to take on even more (like side hustles) to make ends meet. Too many are putting off key life milestones, like starting a family, or buying a home — things that were more easily within reach for previous generations.  

So what’s the answer? Clearly governments are implicated, through employment policies, employment related income supports, and regulations governing things like minimum wages and precarious work. Business and employers are implicated, by creating workplace cultures and expectations that allow flexibility for employees, provide adequate leave, and encourage balance.

But there’s another dimension to work-life balance that we spotlight here at Gen Squeeze. Demographic and socioeconomic changes that are reshaping our society — and wreaking havoc with government budgets.

We are living longer — we may need to work longer too

Canadians are living 7-10 years longer on average today than we did when we created our retirement income security systems to address (successfully!) high rates of poverty among retirees. At the same time, fertility rates have declined, resulting in fewer working age people contributing the tax dollars needed to pay for retirement (and other) important benefits. The result is that today’s retirees expect the same (or better) services when there are only 3 tax paying working age residents per retiree as they did when there were 7 workers for every retiree. The consequences for government finances — and generational fairness — are enormous. 

This is why Gen Squeeze recommends that dialogue about how to help workers achieve greater balance during each year of employment must happen alongside a conversation about the age at which we are eligible to receive retirement income benefits, like old age security (OAS). 

Longer life spans may mean that it’s appropriate to ask (many) working age Canadians to work for more years before claiming OAS. Especially if these longer work lives help to pay for the kinds of public programs needed to facilitate greater work-life balance each year that we are in the labour market. Programs like longer and more generous parental leave, affordable and high-quality child care, accessible and reliable public transit, and housing that is affordable, whether as owners or renters. 

The prospect of raising the age of eligibility for OAS may not be a popular subject. Especially when confronted by a Baby Boom generation that didn’t have to make these trade-offs, yet still enjoy more wealth than previous generations. But better spreading out the paid work we will each contribute across our entire — much longer — lives can be one part of the answer to finding the balance many of us want right now.

More years of work — but fewer hours per year 

The quid pro quo for longer work lives should be fewer hours of work in each of those years of employment. Evidence is mounting that 4 Day work weeks have benefits for workplace productivity and employee retention. We can also explore adapting overtime, Employment Insurance, and Canada Public Pension premiums paid by employers to make it less costly for businesses to use employees up to 35 hours per week — and more costly for hours thereafter.

With new incentives, employers could reduce the full-time work week by 3-5 hours on average for the half of men and third of women who currently work more than 40 hours/week. These employees would trade some after-tax wages (or future wage increases) in order to gain four more weeks of time per year. Changes to the Canada Child Benefit could ensure any reduction in employment hours does not reduce income in low-earning families — which is especially important for some lone parent households. Employees who currently work part-time hours would gain opportunities for more employment. In two parent homes, the total number of hours worked by parents may not change, but these hours could be distributed more evenly between parents.

It's easier to balance work and family if work doesn't take up so much of our time. Reduced hours of work in each year of employment in exchange for more years of employment throughout one’s life could be a reasonable trade-off for many younger people who report that work is “central to their identity,” but who also see enough time at home and with family as a priority. Particularly for families raising young kids, when time and financial pressures are particularly high. 

Andrea LongAndrea Long is Senior Director of Research and Knowledge Mobilization for Gen Squeeze. She has more than 20 years of experience in policy analysis, research and knowledge mobilization on health and social issues, including housing and homelessness, poverty, social determinants of health, and health in all policies.


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