Public policy should assist families—but not by helping adults spend more time on the job.
For thousands of years, people have understood the pervasive hold that work has on our lives. The author of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes argued that toil and labor are “meaningless.” The Romantic movement rejected the alienating wage labor of the Industrial Revolution. Just this year, Netflix’s The One explicitly dramatized how the pride and power of careerism compete with love, romance, and familial pursuits. This sentiment also undergirds a standard movie trope: the father who works so much that he never sees his kids. In some versions, including the Christmas favorite Elf, the dad comes to his senses, backs off from his work obsession, and becomes a better parent.
But while Hollywood knows that work—which is ultimately futile—is one of the chief threats to a meaningful life and a flourishing family, public policy in the United States treats both of those aspirations as irrelevant. In most advanced countries, birth rates are very low by both historical and contemporary global standards, and both ends of the political spectrum promote greater labor-force participation. Progressives focus on providing benefits explicitly aimed at supporting working parents, such as paid leave and public child care. Conservatives fixate on “welfare dependency,” and demand that the social safety net be structured to actively encourage work. From both sides, policies are being hawked to a credulous public as family-friendly, even though persuading people to focus even more on work is a terrible way to help family life.