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Inclusive employee benefits for families: One size fits no one

family of four gathered around the kitchen table while Mom seems to be working on her laptop

How do employers meet the needs of 21st century employees and their families?

Benefits are one of the keys to attracting and retaining employees. However, even the most generous benefits package won’t help achieve that goal if no one is using it. In large part, that’s because most benefits strategies were designed to support an employee and a family structure that is far less prevalent than it used to be. The nuclear family that long represented the American way of life is rapidly becoming the minority. Employers must have inclusive employee benefits to meet the needs of the 21st-century family.

What is the nuclear family?

It’s a familiar scene straight out of 20th Century Americana. A married heterosexual Caucasian couple and two or three biological kids living in suburbia with shiny new appliances and a white picket fence. For decades, this exemplified the typical American family.

If there’s any doubt, take a look at the popular sitcoms of the Golden Era of Television: Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, Hazel. The storylines were contrived and the familial relationships predictably saccharine, but the demographic make-up of the typical sitcom family was fairly close to real life.

There were certainly exceptions, but the so-called “nuclear family” remained the predominant family structure throughout much of the 20th century. As late as 1970, more than 40% of American families fell into that category, according to nuclear family statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

For employers, this relatively static family structure simplified the process of offering a benefits package that would be valued by virtually everyone. Health insurance for Dad, Mom, and the kids, a pension, and life insurance to pay for Dad’s burial since he was nearly always the primary, if not the sole, breadwinner.

 Today, 17.8% of U.S. households are traditional nuclear families

Many factors have contributed to this dramatic decrease. People are waiting longer to get married or choosing not to marry at all, instead living alone or with an unmarried partner. In addition, nearly 1 million U.S. households are comprised of same-sex couples.

According to a 2019 study by the Pew Research Group, more than one-third (38%) of American adults between the ages of 25 and 54 were not married or living with a romantic partner.

Likewise, many couples are waiting to start a family or remaining childless, either by choice or by circumstance. In the United States, fertility rates have fallen since 1990 among all major racial/ethnic groups.

The total fertility rate, the average number of children a woman would have in her lifetime, dropped to 1.64 in 2020, the lowest level ever recorded, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Nuclear family vs. extended family

Commentators have been proclaiming the death of the nuclear family for decades, although the case has been made the term should be expanded to encompass grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, unmarried couples, stepparents, foster parents, or guardians – the extended nuclear family.

Many employees may find themselves caring for an ailing parent or grandparent or disabled adult relative, often while raising young children of their own.

These employee caregivers are part of a new sandwich generation, and they’re forcing employers to reimagine benefits to recognize the changing state of familial responsibilities.

Father & son sitting in a kitchen and Son caring for their elderly parent

These new types of family structures are leading employers to offer a more broader and inclusive range of employee benefits. As a result, people increasingly request health coverage, along with healthcare navigation, clinical guidance, and financial advisory services for members of their extended family.

Employee caregiver support has also become a must-have offering as different types of family structures surpass the traditional nuclear family.

It’s easy to see how today’s workforce requires different benefits than previous generations. Yet many employers have failed to evolve to meet modern-day needs. Granted, there are many barriers – including higher costs and legal issues in some jurisdictions – to expanding access to healthcare plans in this manner.

However, organizations should recognize the misalignment between some of their offerings and workers’ household needs and seek ways to make their benefits more inclusive and flexible where possible.

Your employees' appreciation will translate into greater retention, productivity, engagement, and an overall enhanced employee experience.

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