Can Zoom Save the American Family?

In the midst of a massive experiment with work-family balance, the central question is whether Corporate America will truly embrace the findings

I am sitting in a hospital bed in the town where I grew up. Twenty-four hours prior, I gave birth to my husband’s and my first child, surrounded by nurses and residents wearing Covid masks. Before leaving a hospital with a baby in tow, you are visited by about 53 specialists who cycle through the maternity ward: pediatricians, anesthesiologists, audiologists, midwives and a flurry of nurses schooled in swaddling and burping. And though no one tells you there will be a quiz at the end of your son’s first day on earth, a very nice young woman comes into your room to assess your “education.”

“I’m the education specialist! There are no right answers,” she says, signaling there are definitely wrong answers. But as she begins her survey of what we’ve learned, it becomes clear that there are surprising answers that don’t make much sense outside of our virus-ravaged world.

Where do you live? required a bit of an explanation. We were Covid refugees just in from fiery California, squatting in the downstairs bedroom of my mother’s house. When it became clear that California would adopt another aggressive lockdown save for Michelin-starred restaurants, we made the wise decision to decamp from San Francisco to Northern Florida and begin an experiment in intergenerational living that society abandoned decades ago.

Do you have a pediatrician? Yes, the medical school classmate of my childhood best friend. My husband’s experience of my hometown is that, despite housing a college with 50,000 students, everyone seems to know each other. The doctor who delivered our son has known me since I was five. The nurse who ensured our baby was feeding properly happened to be an elementary school friend. Though the hospital system has roughly 8000 employees (a third of whom seem to moonlight as lactation consultants), everything about the experience felt parochial –- as though we had moved into a ready-made community.

These questions though were the warm-up to the real question of how we planned to take care our baby. And after about 20 minutes, the education specialist stopped scribbling on her clipboard, alarmed by a flagrant inconsistency in our story.

“Oh, so … you’re both employed but… you’re planning to stay home with the baby?”

“Yes,” I said, amused by the question given my California lockdown status.

Aren’t most of us required to stay home right now?

But her question may have ramifications for workers for decades. What if “staying home” became the default option for every knowledge worker? What if home and work—the two poles of American life that have long been in violent opposition—merged to become the sources of both American dynamism and family unit cohesion? And what if, by some unexpected 2020 fluke, Zoom ends up saving the American family?

For the past 10 months, parents have been experimenting with domestic fantasy: an alternative system for work-family balance that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. With the rise of cities as corporate hubs in Post-War America, knowledge work has long been tied to the office— changing and defining how Americans structured their home life. The city office pulled families from the suburbs. The Coasts pulled ambitious college-educated youth from their hometowns in the flyover states. And the war for talent—particularly talented women, who have been graduating college at higher rates than men for the last four decades—meant that HR departments undertook aggressive family-support benefits to recruit and retain women. To make the nuclear, two-income household model of family work, the middle and upper classes outsourced much of the domestic labor to ensure that both parents could work their nine-to-fives.

But none of the corporate or governmental policies of the last half century anticipated the birth of the Internet—nor the changes to knowledge work that would upend our idea of what a productive employee looks like. We didn’t anticipate our grand Covid experiment where most knowledge workers were living solely from the neck up, Zooming in from kitchen tables across time zones and working more hours than ever before. We didn’t expect to a year-long experiment that required new remote processes and systems to be implemented at all companies, large and small. In a post-Covid world, we’re approaching a change in work culture that will rival Industrialization and the women’s movement, as we now know most knowledge workers can function remotely. We can treat this moment as a historical shift when work and home merged with the aid of the virtual world, or we can ignore the findings of our homebound experiments and let family life linger in structures built for previous eras.

Do you plan to stay home with your children?

How founders and business leaders respond to this moment will determine the answer for millions of families, and perhaps the future of the family itself.

GRANDMA IN THE ATTIC: From Corporate Families to Family as a Service

In March, just as the world was locking down, the New York Times Columnist David Brooks wrote an Atlantic cover story titled “The Nuclear Family was a Mistake,” tracking the change in the American family from large, extended families to small ones with two parents and  2.2 children. Corporate families, as defined by Steven Ruggles, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota, were the dominant family structure throughout the 1800s, named “corporate” because the family revolved around the family business. In the case of most American families in the pre-Industrial era, the family business was farming and many children were needed to sustain the land. Until 1850, three quarters of older Americans lived with their children and grandchildren in large family units. Industrialization changed this model. According to Brooks, the nuclear family had replaced the corporate family by 1920. By the 1960s, more than three quarters of all children were living with two parents, away from their extended families.

Brooks notes that when we think of the nuclear family, we think of the “Leave It to Beaver” dream of the 1950-1965, when all seemed to be working well. But he argues that these 15 years were a unique period in American life, and many factors contributed to the baby boom and the success of this family model. Real wages had increased dramatically Post-War, meaning men were the primary breadwinners of single-income households and women stayed home to raise children in Levittowns or similar middle-class suburbs. A house was attainable: the cost of a Levittown house in 1947 was roughly $80,000 in 2021 dollars, meaning the American dream of homeownership was within reach for a one-income family. In Brooks’s estimation, the nuclear family worked under certain social conditions:

“The period from 1950 to 1965 demonstrated that a stable society can be built around nuclear families—so long as women are relegated to the household, nuclear families are so intertwined that they are basically extended families by another name, and every economic and sociological condition in society is working together to support the institution.”

But things changed since the beginning of the Fifties. Divorce rates more than doubled from 1960 to 1980, from 9.2 divorces per 1,000 married women to 22.6 divorces per 1,000 married women. According to a 2019 CDC report, the U.S. fertility rate has been below replacement since 1971, and was down one percent year over year in 2019, the lowest level since 1985. And more broadly, without a large family unit or community, much of the domestic labor in a family has been outsourced to simulate the corporate family model, with Brooks noting, “The rich can afford to buy extended family.” He summarizes the results of our modern familial experiment in bleak terms:

“We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families… ultimately [leading] to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.”

Though Brooks’s thesis is controversial, the statistics support this view that the nuclear families are strongest among college-educated knowledge workers and the wealthy. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 78% of college-educated women could expect their marriages to last at least 20 years. Among women who have high school education, only 40% of women could expect the same. This dramatic change in family life—coupled with the rising cost of living in American cities—had repercussions that previous generations couldn’t have anticipated. Indeed, the nuclear model as a ubiquitous form of family life is relatively new.

First Lady Michelle Obama recently reflected on these important changes in family life in a July 2020 episode of “The Michelle Obama podcast.” Her depiction of her working-class cohesive community in the 1970s where neighbors took care of the neighborhood kids is one of an antiquated system, but one she notes was invaluable to her own success.

“It felt easier in those times to have a family unit because … success wasn’t defined by your ability to leave your nuclear unit and make it on your own…Every elder lived with someone. They shared expenses. They shared households. They shared duties in raising kids. There wasn’t this feeling that you were supposed to… raise a family on your own. That seems to be a new thing. The neighborhood I grew up in operated on this notion. It wasn’t just up to a parent to provide stability and love.”

Unsurprisingly, the model of family she describes is the one she passed on to her own children. Michelle Obama’s mother Marian Robinson lived with the Obamas at the White House and was an important support system for the then-first children, though it was barely covered by the White House Press Corps to protect the privacy of the family. It’s a shame that the most admired woman in America, according to a recent Gallup poll, was never asked how she managed to balance what is arguably the most public familial role in American life with her private familial responsibility. It’s very possible that “Grandma” would have been her response.

The “Grandma in the Attic” model of childrearing has been largely forgotten by American elites, replaced with a culture of nannies for the rich and daycare for the middle class. The reasons for this shift are both economic and cultural, but the economic reasons preclude most young people in expensive knowledge work clusters from entertaining the corporate family lifestyle. In San Francisco, even high-earning millennials would be hard pressed to afford a home with a spare room for grandma or an additional family member. In fact, much of the move from corporate to nuclear families across income classes is tied to the rise of housing prices over the last 40 years. The median price of a single-family home in San Francisco was $1.6 million in 2020, meaning the major economic hubs of the U.S. do not allow for a true extended family model for raising children.

FAMILY AS A BENEFIT: Companies and the Making of the Modern Family

This growing decline in familial support for raising children—and college-educated women becoming the lynchpin for knowledge work in America— meant that demand for paid family services has increased dramatically. In the 1990s and 2000s, this question of how to support working parents became another front in the culture war.

In her powerful 2004 Atlantic essay “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement,” the cultural critic Caitlin Flanagan wrote about the oft-unspoken and uncomfortable conundrum for the burgeoning feminist movement in the 1970s: with the poles of domestic life and work diametrically opposed, how would working women (and now men) take care of their families? “The Deus ex machina,” she posited, “turned out to be the forces of global capitalism,” citing the growth in immigrant female domestic laborers in the developing world and the lack of protections for them. This trend placed working women in an uncomfortable position of outsourcing familial responsibility to other women who had even fewer protections in the labor market than women knowledge workers had. The controversial piece divided critics and spurred dozens of responses. But cultural critics and economists seemed to agree on the basic premise: with the rise of two-income households and women now making up the majority of the college-educated workforce, family benefits are increasingly essential not only to household success but also corporate productivity.

Just as the “Family as a Service” model became the default model for college-educated households, companies, too, began to realize that “Family as a Benefit” was an attractive way to keep and retain talent near their headquarters. Tech companies such as Google and Netflix, for example, have been celebrated for their generous parental leave packages. At Netflix, the primary caregiver can take “unlimited” paid parental leave for the first year after birth or adoption, a talent retention plan that is unrivaled among small businesses or the bulk of American companies.

Other companies dependent on competitive talent—from consulting firms such as McKinsey to Facebook—have adopted even more aggressive tactics for retaining women through offering fertility benefits, a once controversial practice that has become mainstream among successful global companies in recent years given the demand for the services. It makes sense why these benefits are so compelling. In San Francisco and New York City, the average age of a first-time mother is 33 years old. For career-focused millennial women, this benefit is often viewed as essential, and startups have adopted it in droves.

The evolution of “Family as a Benefit” raises a lingering question post-Covid: with companies vying for talent by offering generous and expensive family benefits, does remote work or relocation to lower cost of living cities ameliorate some of the greater societal issues that cultural critics have debated for decades? If new technologies are spurring changes at companies that allow for the home office to be as important as HQ, the largess of companies may become a less determinant factor when workers make decisions about their careers and families.

HIDDEN EXPERIMENTS: Adventures in Working from the Neck Up

In 2020, the old philosophical quandary of “If I tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?” can be replaced in with “If a woman gains 30 pounds from pregnancy, does anyone have to know about it?’

The New York Post says no. In October, the outlet reported “Secret Pregnancies are on the rise!” noting that many women were not telling anyone about the impending births of their babies. Celebrities, too, had surprise announcements as nearly all red-carpet events were canceled in 2020. Mindy Kaling announced the birth of her son in October without anyone knowing a little one was on the way.

My answer—according to my own experiment—was also no. No one needed to know I was pregnant during Covid. In fact, being pregnant while working exclusively on Zoom was one of the greatest gifts of my adult working life. And as far as I can tell, not sharing the news had no negative effects on my colleagues, the founders with whom I work or on my productivity. My nearly year-long adventure in working from the neck up meant that the normal pressures of pregnancy—having everyone ask how it’s going, having men and women alike gawk at one’s changing form—was non-existent. Working via a screen meant that only a few family members knew about the impending arrival of our son until it was absolutely necessary, turning nature’s very public announcement of pregnancy into a private affair.

Indeed, on one of the most important days of my career, I had the worst bout of morning sickness I experienced during my pregnancy. Forgive me for oversharing, but a little-known feature of Zoom is how nicely it concealed the waste basket next to my desk had the “turn off screen” button become necessary that day. (Thankfully, it wasn’t necessary. But had I been in a full conference room that day it would have been far more anxiety-inducing.)

Some might question whether it’s right or fair not to share this information with colleagues, customers or clients, and if one were taking the traditional “out of the office not checking email” parental leave, there’s definitely a need for planning. But again, if you’re working from the neck up—as my office is through much of 2021 due to Covid—does parental leave mean something different in a truly remote world? Can one have a sleeping infant in a cradle next to your desk and hop on the board call during nap time? In a truly physical world, parental leave is crucial to the family. But when home and work are merged, it’s possible for primary caregivers to live in both worlds, something that might be preferable for many women and men.

These questions are personal questions, and they’re also highly political. What works for one family who chooses to put grandma in the attic may not work for another. In no way would I suggest imposing my experiments on others given that I’m privileged to have a supportive family and a career in technology where most people are comfortable with Zoom and remote tools. So many families do not have these luxuries, and it will take time for these tools to becomes ubiquitous across companies and sectors.

That said, a number of families do have these structures, and until this year, these families were not given the option to work remotely as a way to manage work-family balance. Indeed, most of Corporate America punished the women and men who opted to work from home, believing a dated lie that one can’t be as productive or an effective member of a team without sharing the physical world with others. To make the sale, you had to break bread with the customer. To hire the employee, you had to go out for drinks. Yet, in a digital world where we meet our spouses through apps and buy our wardrobes on phones and make choices large and small through a screen, our work culture need not be tied to the Mad Men ethos of boardrooms and cubicles that were built for an analog age.

A NEW MODEL OF WORK, A NEW MODEL OF FAMILY

In America, family has always evolved to fit work, a secondary consideration in how we structure society. Whether corporate farming families, suburban bliss or the post-feminist family as a service model of today, society has never placed family before work when deciding how to organize itself.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In 2021, founders will decide the future of the family. And for the sake of a generation of parents and children, I hope we choose to believe that work and family can coexist peacefully with the aid of a mute button.

Remote work may not save the American family, but it will provide it more freedom: freedom to choose the status quo of a nuclear, city-bound model that works for those who can afford it; or the freedom to revert to the corporate, community-based model, which thrives in places where real-estate is cheap, where houses are large and where many hands surround children so parents can be productive workers. While it’s too early to know the best family policies for a remote culture, the lines between pregnancy, having children and raising them into adulthood blur in the virtual world.

As founders decide how to build their companies in 2021, they must make an active choice as to whether to continue this remote experiment, revert to the status quo, or pursue a hybrid model that allows for workers to choose the model that works best for them. Corporate America, which often takes its cues from the tech community, will be watching how tech answers these questions. And our choices will have ramifications not just for American businesses, but for how we structure the families of tomorrow.