During a workplace seminar I recently attended, a member of the audience asked the speaker, “Why do millennials want the flexible work environments?”

The speaker replied, “Because they don’t want to work! Millennials don’t want to work.”

As one of the only millennials in the crowded event space, my interest was piqued by the speaker’s response and the subsequent non-millennial audience reception. The speaker and audience conversation continued dogging millennial employees, citing Generation Y’s preference for remote working opportunities and their engagement in the gig economy as sufficient evidence for the unfounded argument that millennials are inherently “lazy”, “have immature values”, and “lack sufficient work ethic”.

As a career-minded millennial that’s built her entire career through virtual work out of necessity (I am also a full-time caregiver to my spouse who was injured serving our country in Afghanistan), I was quite troubled to hear this discourse among industry leaders regarding generational misconceptions and ill-informed consensus regarding flexible work opportunities that can lead to mass discrimination within our caregiving community.

The Caregiver Crisis

There are currently 44 million family caregivers in the United States – men and women tasked with providing both financially and supportively to chronically ill, disabled, and aged members of their family. The average family caregiver spends over $6,000 a year of their personal money on their loved ones uncovered medical expenses and works an average of 34.7 hours a week within an employed position. Due to the prevalence of unsupportive family caregiver policies (the United Stated rates very low on caregiver policy, along with the United Arab Emirates and Greece), millions of family caregivers battle chronic underemployment, go without quality health insurance, and sacrifice their own financial future in order to support their loved one.

Caregiver support encompasses a variety of responsibilities: medication management, transportation to doctor and therapy appointments, post-op care, assistance with activities of daily living (ADL), and even 24/7 observation, as often involved with those suffering from dementia. For family caregivers residing in the United States, the burden of providing round the clock support services along with financially providing for the family unit falls on their very unsupported shoulders. Flexible working opportunities offering agile scheduling, work from home options, reduced travel, and other non-traditional work accommodations can be a true godsend for today’s overtasked family caregiver.

A Generation of Caregivers

Over 10 million millennials currently serve as uncompensated family caregivers in the United States. These young professionals are often forced to delay or forfeit major life milestones, such as education, marriage, and children, in lieu of providing care for aging members of previous generations. Such sacrifice often forces these members to choose between providing essential care for their parents and grandparents vs. pursuing competitive career opportunities due to lack of protective employment policies. Given that the 65+ age group is expected to double to 70 million people by the year 2030, the need for continued caregiving is not only a need for those 70 million families but also a need of our society whose current structure depends upon the sustainability of uncompensated family care.

What does this mean for millennials? Tens of millions of millennials will spend their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s caring for aging Baby Boomers, forced to juggle family caregiving and working full-time. To help put the sandwich generations into perspective, if I had had children at the same age as my mother did, I would have spent my twenties caring for my grandmother with Alzheimer’s, my mother with cancer, my husband with combat injuries, and my young children in addition to being the sole financial provider for all parties involved. Throw the Great Recession’s dismal job outlook, financial crisis, and unreliable healthcare system in, and you’ve got quite the impossible endeavor; yet, such is the reality for millions of millennials attempting to start their own family while caring for their aged predecessors.

Caregiver Friendly Workplace

While there’s a multitude of caregiver program updates that need to happen at the policy-level, employing organizations that wish to remain relevant in accordance with changing demographics should recognize the increasing presence of family caregivers within the modern workforce.

As evidenced by views shared during the workplace seminar referenced earlier, many employers are failing to recognize the ticking time bomb some call the “Aging Crisis” that’s affecting millions of young professionals within our workforce. At present, many millennials are flocking to opportunities within the gig economy as that’s the only place they can find the schedule flexibility necessary to care for their disabled loved ones. Modern organizations that refuse to evolve towards flexible working opportunities will feel the effects of their unaccommodating and unsupportive job offerings as older generations move from the workforce and into disabled states requiring the daily care of their younger cohorts.

By transitioning the modern workforce into a flexible one, we prevent employment discrimination against family caregivers, we ensure our rapidly increasing aging population receives the assistance they need to survive, and we, in turn, reduce organizational overhead, improve our environment (less commute!), and increase employee productivity. It’s a win-win-win-win-win-win!

Caregiver Policies Benefit All

As any family caregiver can attest, there’s much work to be done in implementing caregiver-friendly work environments. Unfounded stigmas regarding flexible workers and family caregivers continue to hinder positive innovation, as many of our world’s technology leaders, such as Yahoo and Google, refuse to let go of the cumbersome traditional model in lieu of the workplace of the future.

Reflecting over the many anti-flexible work arguments I’ve heard as both a job seeker and entrepreneur, I’m often overwhelmed by the conclusion that those currently resisting workplace innovation will be the ones most adversely impacted. To whom am I referring? The ever-aging Baby Boomers. While millennials can opt to pursue high paying corporate positions in a recovering economy instead of providing unpaid care for their predecessors to no real detriment to themselves, the anti-flex movement leaders (aka: the aging traditionalists) will be the ones to suffer.

A distinguished marketing colleague in his late sixties routinely presents his arguments against the flexible workplace to me at every networking event and conference; I remind him that he will be in need of medication management, transportation, and assistance with other activities of daily living long before I – a twenty-something millennial – ever will. 

Why continue to fight against inevitable change intended to ensure your long term health and quality of life?