I was sitting at a local diner. The kind that has regulars that have been coming for years. I love going to places like that diner as it’s always fun to sit and listen to the customers and staff interact like they are neighbors or family, which in many cases they are in small town diners. As the chit chat progressed something I overheard caused me to zero in on one of the conversations. Specifically, the owner of the diner was expressing disgust at a recent interaction she had with a young mother who wasn’t currently working outside the home, but had worked in the past. The young mom was commenting that she had zero intention of going back to a regular job if she was able to continue getting a government subsidy. The hard working owner of the diner was beyond annoyed at the attitude expressed by the stay-at-home parent. She communicated very clearly and plainly that the young mother in question was lazy and needed to get off the dole and get her butt to work. What I found most interesting, although not at all surprising, was that the head of the diner had it all wrong.
As I’m writing this there are constant news stories on all the media outlets reporting about how tight the labor market is. Often the pundits are blaming the lingering subsidies that were created to fight the potential economic collapse during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the media the pundits and talking heads are arguing that the labor shortage can be blamed on government payments and lazy individuals who “just don’t want to work”. Their comments mirrored those of the diner owner, or maybe the diner owner was echoing the conservative media of the day. Interestingly I think the diner owner’s experience with the young mother was closer to the mark. I say this because of a recent conversation I had with a recruiter whose business is to find people for lower wage manufacturing jobs. He told me that the labor market’s problem sits squarely on the shoulders of the now stay-at-home moms, but in a twist he blames the manufacturers. In his opinion, he believes that a massive population of lower income parents stopped paying daycare bills, but also stopped working and realized in a very real way that their quality of life was no different. My recruiter friend put it a bit more directly. In his words, “they looked at their bank account when they were working and paying daycare, and then they looked at it when they weren’t working and weren’t paying daycare, and it was about the same.” So my recruiter friend, who is close enough to this population to be more right than wrong, told me, they all came to the same conclusion “If all it takes is a small government subsidy to not work and have a great quality of life, then why come back into the workforce if i’m getting the subsidy?” I believe this to be true, but there is another point that’s not being taken into consideration. Parenting, even “lazy parenting” of daycare age kids isn’t easy. It’s a hard job with long hours.
I think when the money is comparable, then the decision is really made based on quality of life. So, if in our modern world, both working outside the home and working inside the home as a stay-at-home parent is difficult and the money is the same, then why choose to parent? I think that for some it’s because the current job of parenting has a much higher satisfaction level.
What the pundits on television and what the owner of the little local diner didn’t get was that, more than the money, the mom’s job as a parent was substantially more rewarding. In her parenting role, she was doing what humanity has always done, well, always up to the industrial age. I have to admit I used to think that stay at home mom’s wanted to be stay at home moms because of biology. What I didn’t realize is that biology aligns very well with modern job satisfaction theory.
There are five characteristics of job satisfaction. Although I’ve seen them before I was reminded of them recently through a succinct but highly informative post on Seth’s Godin’s Blog. Job satisfaction is driven by five factors which are best described by the questions they ask about the job.
Task significance: Does the work you do create meaning or impact?
Task identity: Do you feel ownership (emotionally) in the work you’re doing?
Autonomy: Do you have the freedom to make choices?
Skill variety: Is the task monotonous?
Feedback: Are you in a place where you can safely and easily get feedback and use it to improve?
If we were to look at these one by one and compare and contrast them between the job of a stay-at-home parent and and any traditional job, be it professional class or labor class, you’ll see that the parenting will win out more often than not. It’s not universal. There are some parents, men and women alike were the factors of job satisfaction are better fulfilled by the traditional work world job. I definitely fall into this category and I know many others who do.
So let’s take a look at the first factor, Task Significance. It asks the question if the work creates meaning or impact. Clearly caring for children of any age, and really caring for most people, creates meaning and impact. How could you not feel you are making an impact when you are helping someone who can’t help themselves? Obviously, there is the feeling of making an impact in some corporate jobs. Healthcare and education come to mind. I would argue that a large chunk of corporate jobs don’t offer huge impact, at least not inherently. If you think about things like logistics, project management, and HR there is a sense of impact but for most it’s not huge. Think about the construction engineer working in telecom. Getting that first big tower project up can be immensely rewarding, but the twentieth? For the logistics professional, moving uncounted tons of commodity products around the globe is more about monotony. Now Imagine a laborer in a factory. There is almost no way that any amount of corporate motivation can make a production job seem more meaningful or impactful than caring for another human being.
The next factor, Task Identity, asks if the worker feels ownership, emotionally, in the work they are doing. Of course many dad’s feel ownership in caring for their small children but in my experience it’s far from a majority. When we move to mom’s, It seems self-evident that the majority are going to feel more ownership when they are managing the human being that came out of their own bodies than they do by processing the next invoice that hits their in-box. Remember, engaging with children, especially small children sets off emotional receptors in the parents brain, especially the mothers. There are very few corporate jobs that can say the same thing.
Employers, at least the good ones, do go to great extremes to try and get employees to feel ownership in the job. Inspirational team meetings, thank you cards, small stock grants and encouraging participation on committees that help determine changes at work all help employees feel like they have a stake in the organization. Other tactics I’ve seen can have a financial component including paid time for volunteering in community and bonus pay or time off for meeting goals. All great stuff, but none of it comes close to what kind of ownership a parent feels when the job is raising a child.
The third job satisfaction is Autonomy. There is lots of talk about how social services or government regulations get in the way of parenting the way parents want. This is patently false for 99.9% of parents who maintain nearly complete control over their children. Parents decide what they eat, what they are exposed to in the world and what kind of education they have. Parents can decide when things get done, when there is going to be down time and when there is going to be engagement. Compare this to the corporate world, with the vision and attitude of autonomy, but where organizations have a metric for every single granular segment of the business. UPS drivers are told what routes to go so they have less turns to make which will speed up deliveries a bit of a percent. Any form of production is measured in every conceivable way. There are many jobs in the professional world where employees aren’t micro-managed and where activities aren’t measured from day to day, but eventually there are always metrics of some sort or other. This is one of the job satisfaction categories where there is no comparison between the autonomy of parenting and the autonomy granted in the workplace.
When we get to Skill variety, things get a little more complicated. In parenting, when the question of: Is the task monotonous comes up, the answer, at least in some situations, is yes. If anyone has ever experienced a child chant mom, mom, mom, mom, mom, at the grocery store or has had to spend months ferrying their kids to every conceivable after school activity, they would probably think that there is more variety in the corporate world. Thankfully these situations and many others pass quickly. The reality is that kids are always changing and that means the job of parenting is always changing. Going back to autonomy, if a parent is doing active home school, every single day has a new challenge. Forget home schooling, if a parent is just trying to get the child to develop the skills to be independent and productive in society, the job is a never ending parade of different challenges.
Compared to most corporate jobs, even creative professional jobs this isn’t even close. A graphic designer is always going to be designing something. A drafter is always going to be drafting, no matter how different the projects are. Accountants are always counting and reconciling. A parent could go from psychologist, to medical practitioner, to jailer, to teacher all in the span of a few hours. No corporate job, save for a very few, could ever equal this level of variety.
Feedback, the final characteristic of job satisfaction, is all about growth and improvement, but done safely. I read “safely” as getting feedback without fear of negative consequences up to and including losing your job. More often than not, when you get feedback at work, it’s not the kind that people enjoy. Yes, some companies try to build a culture that encourages positive feedback loops, but that’s not the norm. Very often feedback is non-existent or it’s negative and that negative feedback has huge consequences. Feedback in the corporate world can be unemotional and based on metrics, which typically doesn’t do a good job of communicating the bigger picture.
Compare that to the feedback loop when raising children. When you cut the hair wrong on a tween girl and she’s so embarrassed she runs off screaming, or if you drive too close to the school for your too cool young teen boy, and he pretends he doesn’t know you, then you are getting great feedback that is safe from a parent’s perspective. Even when you have a small child throw a plate of beans on the ground it’s great feedback and it’s also feedback that’s not going to cause you to lose the ability to pay your mortgage.
I’m sure I could have explored this concept of comparing job satisfaction factors between being a stay-at-home parent and holding down a job in the corporate world from many other angles. I wasn’t trying to make an exhaustive list. My point of this commentary was that if you look at the job of parenting, for many if not most mom’s, and for a good portion of dad’s, parenting better aligns to job satisfaction metrics than any traditional workplace job. I’m not trying to argue that parenting is a better job for everyone. Clearly there are some people who get more of the job satisfaction boxes checked by the corporate world than they do parenting. As I said, I’m definitely one of those people but I feel that I’m in the minority. I think the majority are represented by the young mom I opened this narrative with. When you take out money as a consideration, they are still working long hard hours. They are just working at a job that is more satisfying to them. There are some important lessons here. The first is that it’s foolish to consider stay-at-home parents as lazy. The second is that if you are a corporation, and you need people, then you can start to think about your competition a bit differently. It’s hard to compete with the job satisfaction of being a parent, but it’s not impossible. Maybe you don’t have to compete, maybe you complement. We can’t forget that parenting doesn’t usually come with a big paycheck, federal tax credits not withstanding. There is opportunity for employers to bring the lost at-home-parent workforce back, they just have to get creative. I’d love to have a brainstorming session with any employers in my local area who are struggling with this issue and want to come up with out-of-the-box solutions. I even have the perfect place to do it. We could make it a breakfast meeting at this great local diner I know.
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