The rise of dual-earner households, as well as single-parent, single-earner households and older couples facing joint retirements, has significantly changed the relationship between work and family life in the United States and other nation states. No longer dominant is the family in which one parent goes out to work and one stays home. Yet even in the early 1990s, these demographic changes eluded the attention of scholars and public policy makers.
In 1994 the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, under the direction of then-President Ralph E. Gomory, chose to address explicitly this major social and economic sea change. The foundation sought to understand what was happening within working families at all stages in their lives, as well as within the workplaces in which they were employed. In focusing on the workplace, Sloan was interested in learning to what extent American employers were responding to this increasingly diverse work force, in terms of both their business objectives and the organizational structure of the workplace, including provisions related to time and space. Sloan chose to develop funding strategies that would have the potential to affect how our society navigates these major social and economic changes by identifying what steps might be beneficial for the future.
The Sloan Foundation’s vision was articulated by Kathleen Christensen, who was recruited to spearhead and direct a program on workers and their working conditions. She established four principles to guide Sloan’s grantmaking in the area of working families and the workplace. These principles are: (1) supporting the production of high quality, multidisciplinary research to identify the critical issues faced by workers and their families over the course of their lifespans; (2) communicating these research findings beyond the academy to business leaders, policy makers, and the media to increase public understanding of problems faced by workers, particularly their need for workplace flexibility; (3) forming a coalition to launch and execute a national initiative to make workplace flexibility a compelling national issue and the standard way of working; and (4) funding parallel tracks for achieving success by increasing voluntary employer practices and building diverse support for a national policy on workplace flexibility. The resulting funding model is one of the few philanthropic efforts committed to an integrated program that supports collaborative work in three arenas: research, private sector practices, and public policy.
Informed by these principles, the Workplace, Work Force and Working Families program supported more than 350 grants totaling $120 million over the course of more than a decade. The results of the program are significant in three distinct areas: producing work-family scholarship, improving media understanding of work-family issues, and executing the National Workplace Flexibility Initiative. This conference is a culmination of these efforts and addresses each of these areas. The intent is to interface issues of policy and practice with research as a way of understanding how to achieve workplace flexibility across the life course.