Married to the job no more: Craving flexibility, parents are quitting to get it

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The number of Americans who are up and quitting their jobs has been growing for months. From low-wage, frontline employees to more affluent workers and executives, this turnover tsunami is sweeping through the entire workforce. Parents, who have faced some of the harshest conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, are joining this exodus with gusto.

As part of our research on the Great Attrition, we found that parents were more likely to have left their jobs over the past several months than their nonparent counterparts. Reasons include exhaustion from the competing pressures of working from home and juggling childcare responsibilities, struggles with returning to the office but not finding consistent childcare, and reevaluating their overall work–life balance. Parents are looking for more flexible work opportunities, from taking time off and starting their own businesses to turning to gig roles.1

According to our survey data,2 this trend will continue for the next several months, if not more, with non-White parents planning to leave at higher rates than their White counterparts. For instance, fully half of non-White fathers we surveyed said they were planning to leave their jobs. Non-White mothers are planning to leave at higher rates than White mothers, at 43 percent to 34 percent (Exhibit 1).

More non-White parents are planning to quit their jobs than White parents, raising concerns about organizations’ diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

Companies don’t want to lose large numbers of workers of any stripe. But this trend among non-White parents—as well as the large numbers of women who have left the workforce since the pandemic started—is compounding the challenges organizations face as they pursue goals related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. McKinsey research has shown that inclusive organizations have a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining talent, among other positive business factors.

Parents also tend to belong to a crucial category: midtenure employees who play key managerial and individual-contributor roles.3 They are leaders or are on the leadership track. Any organization that loses this cohort can take a big hit to its institutional knowledge, including its managerial capabilities and mentorship pipeline.

What’s more, managers who are parents, and in particular women, provide much of the social support in organizations. Our Women in the Workplace 2021 report revealed that women managers have supported employee well-being throughout the pandemic at a higher rate than their male counterparts (Exhibit 2). Losing these women could erode an organization’s social fabric, further intensifying the cycle of grief and burnout that companies have been grappling with since the pandemic began.

Employees with women managers are more likely to say that their manager has supported and helped them over the past year.

For all these reasons, it is crucial for organizations to create an environment that will accommodate and retain parents. But that means they have to understand why parents are looking for alternatives in the first place.

Parents prioritize family concerns and remote work while nonparents focus more on aspects of work experience.

Why they’re leaving

Our research shows that the problems that all employees are grappling with—not feeling valued by their organization or manager, not feeling a sense of belonging, and not having a good work–life balance—affect parents and nonparents alike. However, there are key factors contributing to why parents are leaving that are distinct from nonparents. Of more than 20 possible reasons given for leaving their job in the past six months, parents cited caring for family as a top five reason, while nonparents cited family near the bottom of the list, at number 18.

Similarly, workload and the ability to work remotely were among the top ten reasons that parents left their job but were toward the bottom of the list for nonparents (Exhibit 3).

These results are consistent with McKinsey research on the future of remote work, which has shown that employees with young children are more likely to prefer primarily remote-working models and flexible work locations, with only 8 percent suggesting that they would like to see a fully on-site model in the future.

Where they’re going

Our survey shows that parents are significantly more likely to start a new business compared with their nonparent counterparts. The data suggest that they will continue to be more likely to do so over the next several months, with 45 percent of parents more likely than their peers without children to leave to start a new business (Exhibit 4).

More parents than nonparents are starting their own businesses or are planning to do so.

Although our survey showed more workers in all categories doing gig work because they prefer it, parents are 6 percent more likely to take gig jobs than nonparents. Lower-income individuals are more likely to be driven to gig work out of necessity, the survey shows, and parents among this group more so than nonparents (Exhibit 5). One of the reasons, the lower-income respondents said, is that this type of work affords them more flexibility to care for family.

Gig work interests parents and nonparents alike, but more lower-income parents report needing that work and the flexibility it provides.

How to keep them

It’s abundantly clear that organizations have to move quickly if they want to retain working parents and others with caregiving responsibilities. Addressing their needs for increased flexibility is the first place to start. But how?

Many companies have addressed the attrition problem with blunt instruments, including pay raises and extra paid time off. While money and time off are always welcome, more precise tools are needed. McKinsey research throughout the pandemic has shown that the best companies listen closely to their employees and craft responses tailored to their needs. In the case of parents, even more than other groups, this means focusing on work–life balance and health while treating remote work and schedule flexibility—formerly viewed as perks—as table stakes.

Here are three areas where organizations can be more bold and creative in their thinking about how to retain parents:

Embrace radical flexibility. This goes beyond giving parents and other caregivers extra paid time off to take care of family needs. What if an employee needs every Tuesday afternoon off to care for a child or other family member? The response might be to give them a free floating day per week that they can take whenever they need it, no questions asked. Maybe some parents would love taking off from 3:00 p.m. until after dinner, then logging back in as needed after the kids are in bed.

Companies might create radically flexible roles, allowing all employees to cut back to 60 percent workweeks or downshift to a less-demanding role for a time, with the understanding that they can ramp back up when ready. They could even break positions into pieces, allowing job sharing, or hiring someone to do 20 percent of a job one day a week, for example. These radically flexible roles already exist in some more advanced healthcare settings, where nurse staffing demands are constantly changing. Per diem and part-time nurses are able to pick up variable-length shifts as needed to cover gaps and meet patient care needs as well as their personal need for flexibility.

Models of this nature could be considered for other roles in other industries, establishing new paradigms that provide greater flexibility for workers as companies increasingly update their focus to evaluating employees on deliverables rather than time spent at work.

Get more creative with childcare support. Some companies have provided in-house subsidized childcare or concierge services. These are welcome policies that can be viewed not as short-term emergency actions but as long-term adjustments.

For example, Patagonia’s on-site childcare drives its nearly perfect retention of new mothers and reduces overall turnover of parents to 25 percent below the general employee population, the company says. Patagonia believes parents’ engagement, loyalty, and productivity have also been enhanced by the benefit.4

However, many parents may still be reluctant or unable to return to the office with their child, essentially rendering those services useless to them. Companies can go above and beyond these options by offering parents off-site, including at-home, childcare that is either fully or mostly subsidized. This will not only show a personalized commitment to employees but it will also help them maintain the flexibility they desire. Organizations can also expand the use of parental-leave programs by encouraging all parents to participate in them, not just mothers. By equalizing and normalizing participation in these programs, companies can create a more equitable environment for their entire workforce.

Let them go—and make a concerted effort to get them back. Having gone through a prolonged global pandemic, many employees need a break. This is a normal and increasingly common response to an abnormal event.

Some companies have already developed processes that allow parents who have taken leave to adjust to returning to work, recognizing that the childcare and other responsibilities that prompted their departure likely have not disappeared. In addition to accommodating their childcare needs, companies can offer on-ramp programs that help returning parents update their skills to get up to speed.

Organizations can also conduct a different type of exit interview, asking, “What would it take to keep you here? If we accommodate your needs, would you be willing to stay for a pilot program to test how it works?” This approach would rely in part on training leaders and managers to elicit an honest appraisal from employees about what led them to this point.

Organizations that think they can wait out this period without responding to employees’ concerns about flexibility may face a rude awakening as parental attrition in particular gets worse. They also risk increasing burnout throughout their entire workforce if more individuals leave and existing employees have to fill those gaps.

Companies that experiment with how to design jobs that will appeal to parents—and anyone looking for more flexibility—are acknowledging reality: no matter how dedicated they may be to their jobs, individuals are more than employees. Parents need to take care of their children, adult children may need to take care of aging parents, and we all need to take care of our own health and well-being. Companies that get creative with solutions are meeting this need for flexibility with a flexible response—a welcome model for everyone.

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