The Pandemic Has Exposed the Fallacy of the “Ideal Worker”


May 11, 2020


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With most of us working from home these days, Americans’ workday has increased by 40% – roughly 3 hours a day – the largest increase in the world. Yes, I fact-checked that. I couldn’t believe it either. The problem with all this busyness and productivity is that it comes at a huge price. Many employees are now doing the work of three or more people. They’re doing their own jobs, their childcare worker’s jobs, and their children’s teacher’s jobs. Yet, many employers seem oblivious. I hear reports of companies cheerfully assuring their employees, and themselves, that everyone is working at, or close to, 100%. Why don’t more managers see the problem here?

It’s because there’s still a widespread reverence for the “ideal worker.” We commonly define the ideal worker as someone who starts working in early adulthood and continues, full-time and full force, for 40 years straight. The concept reflects a breadwinner-homemaker model that dates back to the Industrial Revolution and functioned fairly well through the 1960s, until women began entering the formal workforce in greater numbers. But the “ideal worker” norm has long exacted a higher toll from women—who not only did their day jobs but were also expected to deal with responsibilities for their families and households.

However, it’s not just women who suffer under the burden of the “ideal worker” norm. According to a recent survey, 14% of women are considering quitting their jobs due to work-family conflict related to COVID 19. Perhaps more surprising, so are 11% of men. My organization runs a hotline for workers who encounter discrimination based on family care responsibilities, and we hear all the time from men whose organizations have outdated leave policies that give the “primary caregiver” months off but give far less time off to the “secondary caregiver.” We’re all seeing how the pandemic can serve to level the playing field as some men take on more domestic responsibilities than they used to. This is not to deny that women are doing more; the point is that very often neither men nor women are the ideal workers of times past. Today, a key divide is between parents and non-parents. “I’ve noticed that there is a huge split among my trial lawyer colleagues. Those without children are, for the most part, getting a lot done. Those of us with kids at home are litigating as if sinking in quicksand,” said Gordon Knapp, a lawyer in San Francisco.

To be sure, we’re seeing the erosion of the ideal of an employee whose family responsibilities are kept tastefully out of sight. Before COVID, many…continue reading article