A Secret Competitive Advantage for Business
Business + Economy

A Secret Competitive Advantage for Business


When Meryl Streep and McKinsey agree, you know you’re onto something huge.

This week, PBS is going to air a new special, Caring for Mom and Dad, narrated by Streep. The week after, the McKinsey Global Institute is going to release a new book, No Ordinary Disruption: The Four Global Forces Breaking All the Trends. Aging is one of them.

As Standard & Poor’s declared five years ago in a report on the graying of the global population: “No other force is likely to shape the future of national economic health, public finances, and policymaking as the irreversible rate at which the world’s population is aging.”

By 2020, for the first time in history, there will be more old than young. Moreover, as compelling as the impact of population aging is on the macroeconomic future of nations, PBS and Streep are bringing into the open the even greater impact an aging population will have on families and caregiving. As we live longer – routinely into our 90s and 100s – we are going to need more caregivers than is currently imaginable.

Related: Why Your Prime Earning Years Could Begin at 50

This need will explode even more dramatically as we continue along the parallel path of de-population -- stunningly low birth rates that have consequences for the old-to-young ratio in society.

The dirty little secret about this trend is that the caregiving burden is not only about families or nations: It has enormous implications for employers big and small since worker productivity will be affected as more and more employees have to attend to the challenges of elder caregiving.  

As a society, we’ve been down this road before. In the Eighties, when the women’s movement had begun to hit its stride and force real structural changes in the workplace, a new tension arose: how to tend to both work and children.

The real breakthrough came when employers realized they had a role to play – and a competitive advantage to seize by “owning” the childcare issue. To attract and retain talent, and to improve productivity, they created policies and programs that enabled parents to balance work with parenthood. From onsite childcare to programs for maternity and paternity leave, workplaces responded to the needs of new parenthood.  

We are now in a similar situation with eldercare.

The data show just how big of a deal this is:

  • 44 million unpaid elder caregivers in the U.S.
  • 75% are employed
  • 58% are women
  • One-third care for someone over 85

And there is increasing evidence that caregiving can be a drag on business:

  • $34 billion annual cost in lost productivity due to caregiving
  • 6.6 days of work missed per year due to caregiving
  • 24% of employees prevented from working more due to caregiving duties

And these numbers are, one can only imagine, way underreported for who among us would openly admit to not doing their job?

Just as business played a leadership role in normalizing and standardizing childcare – and, in turn, unlocking the economic potential of American women – it is time for it to do the same for eldercare, one of the relatively unnoticed but huge opportunities in an emerging “silver economy.”

For business to step up to the challenge, it must realize:

1.       This is not an HR issue, but a C-Suite imperative. Elder caregiving must be recognized as the productivity issue that it is. The World Economic Forum is leading the way. It has adopted a set of Guiding Principles for Age-Friendly Businesses, which outline how population aging can either hold back or accelerate business growth. To categorize elder caregiving as an HR issue is to misunderstand it profoundly. This is a P&L issue, plain and simple.
2.       Employees need more information – and help understanding it. Businesses should curate information for employee caregivers. While some information is available through online searching, it can be hard to find and more difficult to assess and understand. A business would save its caregiver employees a massive headache and drain of time by becoming a trusted partner, providing the right information and guiding employees through it. 

A network of preferred partners will be essential. Employers can partner with home-based care organizations to provide to employees “back up” or subsidized home-care services. Organizations such as Home Instead Senior Care may prove to be ready partners for large organizations, helping them think through new ways of supporting employee caregivers. The search for good home-care options can feel like the Wild West to caregivers, and the service of providing a network and a set of recommendations will go a long way to save time and ease anxiety. It’s not surprising that companies like Bank of America Merrill Lynch are finding ways to address the needs of our aging population through 21st century financial planning that aligns with exploding caregiver needs.

By confronting the caregiving challenge ahead early on, companies will be facing up to inevitable productivity issues and positioning themselves for a sustainable competitive advantage.

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