A Top Priority for Generation Z? Child Care - Early Learning Nation

A Top Priority for Generation Z? Child Care

New Survey Shows Generation Z Values Child Care as a Leading Workplace Benefit

Kelly Choi crunched the numbers on child care, and the results didn’t look good. Like the majority (66 percent) of families raising young children, she and her husband both work full time and need child care for their 3 year-old daughter and 1 year-old son. Choi works for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as a graphic designer, a job she sought out because there was a child care benefit attached; workers could receive access to subsidized child care. Choi put herself on the waitlist before either child was born. But this benefit—analogous to other child care situations in this country—was first-come first-serve and demand exceeded supply. Choi didn’t get off the waitlist in time and had to make private arrangements.

Now, each month, she and her husband write a check for over $3000 to the Goddard School, a private day care center in central Pennsylvania where they live. The monthly amount is more than their mortgage – it is the single biggest expense they have. “My husband is essentially working to pay for child care,” Choi explained.

A new poll finds that Generation Z, more so than Millennials or Generation X, rated child care benefits as more important than health insurance in terms of workplace benefits. More than half of Generation Z parents polled said they would consider switching their jobs for on-site child care, and a third said they accepted a job that paid less in order to have more flexibility around child care.

Choi is in her 20s and identifies as Generation Z, and believes that child care is one of the most important benefits an employer can provide, just as much or even more so than health care benefits. She has contemplated making a job switch if it would make child care more affordable. She and her husband even looked into changing their work situation to stagger their hours, or have her work part time in the evenings, but both situations meant a significant stress on their life and the drop in earnings she would face offset any potential savings from not having to pay for child care.

But Choi and other members of Generation Z, who are born between 1997 and 2012 and are now beginning to have families of their own, represent a shift in the way child care is considered important. Notably, they are also shifting how they view an employer’s role to provide such care – either through direct subsidies or more generous benefits connected to young children, including paid family leave for both parents for the arrival of a new baby (and of course, paid sick days for when such babies and young children fall ill).

A new poll finds that Generation Z, more so than Millennials or Generation X, rated child care benefits as more important than health insurance in terms of workplace benefits. More than half of Generation Z parents polled said they would consider switching their jobs for on-site child care, and a third said they accepted a job that paid less in order to have more flexibility around child care. The Gen Z respondents of the study only included people who were 18 years or older and had at least one child (i.e., the younger subset of Generation Z wouldn’t have been included), but the results diverge widely enough from the older generations to show a difference.

Morgan Rentko, a research manager at the The Harris Poll Thought Leadership Practice, who facilitated the poll, says such results showing the shifting attitudes around work and child care were not surprising, given Covid and the rise of hybrid work. “Child care needs changed dramatically within that time,” she said. “Data shows that hybrid work is becoming an increasing reality for folks. It’s a preferred method of work, including for Generation Z, so it also follows that there are expectations for employers to provide child care benefits as well.”

This echoes findings from Next100 and GenForward, in which 81 percent of Millennials and Gen Zers identified access to affordable high-quality child care as an important issue, and nearly 3 in 4 (72 percent) of respondents identified the lack of high-quality child care programs and their cost as a barrier to achieving their professional goals. From the report: “The bottom line is that affordable child care is top of mind for young people in the United States and the lack of it is having a negative impact on their lives.”

Part of the evolving attitudes on child care can be attributed to the change in labor force demographics, explains Misty Heggeness, associate professor of public affairs and economics, University of Kansas. “When we look at Gen Z mothers today, those aged 18 to 26, we see a larger percentage of them in the labor force than past cohorts.” She points out that there are more Gen Z moms working for pay (60%) than Millennial mothers (58%) and Gen X mothers (54%) of similar age ranges. “It would make sense that Gen Z might be more vocal today about, and supportive of, issues related to child care since not only are more of them working, but the cost of child care has skyrocketed – making it even more impossible to access.”

Heggoness references a point articulated by Claudia Goldin in her 2022 book, Career and Family: the change in child care dynamics and pricing is coming at a point for Generation Z when they are engaging in building their careers, and they may be more incentivized to prioritize taking advantage of their university education and laying the groundwork for future career success and opportunities. This can be why Choi and her husband, who may have been able to save a few dollars by giving up one of their positions, may still opt to work to reap career gains and higher future incomes by paying for child care now.

Though with the demographic shift comes a change in expectations which could be the impetus needed to create the kind of child care infrastructure required so that parents are not overburdened, and providers and educators can make a living wage for their skilled work. In Brigid Schulte’s book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, an entire chapter is dedicated to the Comprehensive Child Development Act, a high-quality, national child care system that passed in the U.S. Congress with bipartisan support, only to die at the hands of a veto by President Nixon. The veto efforts were led by Pat Buchanan, a conservative politician who’d served in various Republican administrations. When Schulte went to interview him and asked if he and his wife divided their own child care responsibilities, he shrugged the question off – they’d never had kids. This was, in essence, a problem about which they knew nothing.

When then-state Senator (now U.S. Congresswoman) Becca Balint described walking into the Vermont State Legislature for the first time as a young mother, she recalls the surprise in hearing from her much older and predominantly male colleagues that child care was an issue affecting the workforce. It took that generation shift to create the mindset that child care was a priority – and now Vermont has one of the most generous child care programs in the country.

Changing attitudes alone will not create the impetus for national change, but it’s a start. Rentko anticipates conducting more studies this year on changing parental attitudes surrounding school and child care. “As we enter an election time period, regardless of political affiliation – parents want the government to step up and provide some sort of support for child care,” Rentko said. “Seventy percent of people believe child care is at a crisis point, and 67 percent believe that our country cannot have a functional economy without child care, so most people are already there.”

Rebecca Gale is a writer with the Better Life Lab at New America where she covers child care. Follow her on Instagram at @rebeccagalewriting, and subscribe to her Substack newsletter, "It Doesn't Have to Be This Hard."

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