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Column: Working parents have two jobs — and both are important to the economy

Nearly one in five workers work part-time in the U.S. By 2020, that figure is expected to rise to 40 percent.  By 2030, a majority of workers will be on their own,” according to Berkeley economist and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

The common assumption is that part-time workers want to work full time, but can’t find full-time employment due to a dearth of jobs and stiff competition. But deeper analyses suggest a very different interpretation: Employees are willing to sacrifice earnings if it means achieving a better balance of their personal and professional lives.

The majority (62 percent) of part-time workers choose part-time or freelance work for “non-economic reasons.” When asked why they work part-time, one in four cite caregiving obligations. A recent survey by the headhunter firm RecruitFi found that individuals currently working full time are increasingly likely to seek part-time work. When asked why, 45 percent of respondents cited “work-life balance” as their number one priority — higher even than compensation (34 percent).

In other words, talented workers frequently choose to reduce their working hours in order to do caregiving work that we’ve been told has no economic value.

Is that a smart move? If you crunch the numbers and it turns out that you can give up 30 to 50 percent of your current household income in order to gain more time running the household, should you take that deal?

Idealism aside, the answer is decidedly “no.” And that is because you won’t be doing the same job you are doing now, but with fewer hours. Instead, choosing part-time work means working in low-paying jobs outside the promotion stream and usually without benefits.

READ MORE: How much does it cost to leave the workforce to care for a child? A lot more than you think.

If physicians or lawyers in private practice decide to take on fewer patients or clients, no one assumes that they concomitantly lose their medical or legal expertise. But that is not what happens across the workplace spectrum. Those who opt to go part-time quickly discover that there is no such thing as a part-time job at the managerial or professional level. Part-time workers are not considered capable or worthy of managerial or professional duties — even if that is what they were doing before.

According to an analysis conducted by the National Women’s Law Center, part-time employees frequently make less per hour for the same work, lack access to vital workplace benefits, are denied promotion opportunities and are frequently subject to abusive scheduling practices.

The hostility toward part-timers often ends up driving talented workers out of the workplace entirely and into entrepreneurship. Paypal recently surveyed women entrepreneurs in the United States, China, France and Mexico to discover their reasons for choosing this career path. The results were striking: The majority of respondents from China, France and Mexico said they chose entrepreneurship to control their futures or to have pride in themselves. But in the United States, the single biggest motivator was a desire for more flexible work hours. Fifty-five percent of American women entrepreneurs said they wanted better work-life balance.

Why? Forbes contributor Elizabeth MacBride describes her experience at returning to work as managing editor after the birth of her child:

I was determined to show that I could make my career work and be a mother. But with a more humane working culture, where one or the other parent can afford to take months or a year off after the birth of a child, I would never have been back at work in the first place. Within six months, I’d quit for the uncertain path of freelancing. It looked a whole lot better to me.

The problem is that as every entrepreneur knows (or quickly learns), entrepreneurs and small business owners typically work more hours than their counterparts in the workplace. As MacBride puts it, “I didn’t win myself less work. I’m sure I work harder than many working mothers in traditional jobs. But my schedule is my own.”

READ MORE: Does being paid hourly vs. yearly change how you save?

Dave Vasen, founder and CEO of Brightwheel, a highly successful app for preschools and day cares, faced a similar dilemma after his daughter was born. He described his experience this way:

After she was born, I found it incredibly hard to miss out on key moments of her day while I was at work, and then didn’t know how to contribute to her development in the short time we had together in the evening.  Every parent I talked to felt the same.

Vasen resolved this dilemma by making a very risky move: He left a high-paying executive position at AltSchool to found KidCasa, a preschool management service that later became Brightwheel. But the gamble paid off for this talented worker.

Employers are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers inherent in losing talent like Vasen from the traditional workplace. Deloitte LLP, a financial advisory organization, has chosen to be proactive in attracting and keeping workers who opt to forgo full-time work for some other arrangement. According to Mike Preston, Deloitte’s chief talent officer, companies that focus solely on traditional full-time hires are missing out. Last year, about 8,000 of the almost 70,000 workers at Deloitte were part-time.

READ MORE: More part-time workers suffer instability, long hours to make ends meet

Some businesses worry that allowing workers to reduce hours, while allowing them the same level of benefits, will double their employer contribution to health insurance premiums. But under the Affordable Care Act, premiums are subsidized depending on a person’s income, so the move is often cost-effective for both employer and employee.

Perhaps the greatest resistance to embracing the concept of part-time managers and professionals is the belief that people who choose this route are lazy, demanding to be paid at the same rate as full-time workers, while refusing to put in the hours that they believe entitles them to higher pay rates. In a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper entitled “The ACA: Some Unpleasant Welfare Arithmetic,” University of Chicago economics professor Casey Mulligan states:

Under the Affordable Care Act, between six and eleven million workers would increase their disposable income by cutting their weekly work hours. About half of them would primarily do so by making themselves eligible for the ACA’s federal assistance with health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket health costs…

The Affordable Care Act, Mulligan agues, effectively gives workers federally funded days off without losing overall income, which constitutes an incentive to “stay home and not work.”

This logic depends on an unstated premise, namely, that the only work people do that contributes to the national economy is the work that takes place outside the home. Caregiving and running a household is not considered “real work.”

The problem with this unstated premise is that it’s false.

The women’s movement launched by my generation vastly underestimated the value of the work performed by stay-at-home mothers. We discovered it only when it turned out that we had to pay thousands of dollars to day care centers and nannies to care for children and thousands to housekeepers to clean our houses.

According to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies, the average cost of center-based day care in the United States is about $12,000 annually — per child. As Sheryl Sandberg points out in “Lean In,” the cost for two children to go to day care is greater than annual median rent in every state in the U.S. And according to Investopedia, the estimated cost of household help to replace a traditional at-home mom is about $96,261.

What this means is that when people talk about “work-life balance,” they don’t mean having more time for fun and games. They mean having enough time to do the schlepping, cooking, cleaning, child care and laundry.

READ MORE: A working mom on her employer’s unpaid family leave policy

Not surprisingly, a recent essay in The Economist called for a new metric — GDP-plus — that would include unpaid work in the home.

To put it simply, it’s time we acknowledge that working parents have two jobs — the one at work and the one at home — and both are equally important to our economy. Raising children and running a household is valuable work, and working parents need options for hitting the pause button without getting severely penalized. In a New York Times opinion essay, writer Judith Shulevitz put it this way:

We’re fighting for 12 weeks of leave when we need to rethink the basic chronology of our lives. We live longer than we used to. A caregiverist agenda should include stretching career paths across that longer life span, making it easier for parents of both sexes to drop in and out of the work force as the need arises… Perhaps we should lobby for a six-hour workday, yielding both more jobs and more time for family.

In her book, “Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic,” historian Jeanne Boydston carefully documents how women’s domestic labor gradually lost its footing as a recognized aspect of economic life in America. She points out that the image of the colonial “goodwife,” valued for her contribution to household prosperity, was replaced by the image of a “dependent” and a “non-producer.” Wages became the measure of a person’s worth, and those who do not draw wages came to be seen as inessential to the real economy.

There are many schools of feminism, but most embrace this belief that “real work” takes place in the realm formerly occupied only by men — the workplace — and domestic labor pales in comparison. To achieve parity, we are encouraged to “lean in” throughout our reproductive years and to put caregiving on the proverbial back burner. The fly in the ointment is an increasing recognition that the first few years of life are a particularly sensitive period in human development. Those most involved in a child’s daily life from birth to age 4 wield the most power in laying the foundation for cognitive and social functioning. Parental investment during these years pays off in the long run — for families, businesses and the economy — because today’s children are tomorrow’s workers and leaders.