I believe that the biggest investment we can make in the future of our population is to build a reliable, high-quality, safe, and affordable care infrastructure, focused on childcare from birth to age 5, and to expand our thinking to include the whole cycle of life.
The COVID crisis exposed the beleaguered state of the U.S. care economy. One consequence of this mess was that hundreds of thousands of women who had been managing jobs and kids felt they had to quit their paid work. We were also reminded that so many of our essential workers, including caregivers to both children and the old, don’t earn enough money to live on.
Fixing this issue will remove barriers to work for women and young families and help many women achieve financial independence. This is a commitment to future generations that will lay the foundation for a healthier, more prosperous population.
But focusing on care will do even more. As a businessperson who successfully ran a large American company for a dozen years, I can attest that this will be a competitive advantage for every company, community, and state where we make it happen.
Let’s start with children. Regardless of paid-leave duration or a parent’s time flexibility, babies and young children need care when their moms and dads are working. Right now, for many parents, finding good daycare in a center that is either close to home or close to their job is near impossible because there simply aren’t enough spots or they are just too expensive. And that problem doesn’t take into account care for children whose parents work at night or need backup help.
We need the federal and state governments, the private sector, and experts in early childhood education and community building to come together to create a full-scale, creatively designed childcare system that eliminates so-called childcare deserts. I laud the people who have been working on this issue for decades, as well as programs such as Head Start and other pre-K initiatives that do tremendous work to prepare children for their school years ahead. But I am suggesting we go much further. We need to expand programs that exist today, network them with in-home care options, and link them with community organizations that have buildings — from religious institutions to libraries — to create a new generation of terrific options.
We also need comprehensive licensing and training programs for childcare owners and staff. And we need to pay caregivers wages that reflect their awesome responsibility. Early childhood education, so critical for every baby’s lifelong well-being, is a growing field. Why not create incentives to get young people into these jobs?
At the same time, large companies and other employers should step up. Where possible, companies should add on-site or near-site childcare for their employees. If the number of children doesn’t sustain that investment, companies should work with others to pool childcare services either near offices or in residential clusters. At PepsiCo headquarters, the total cost of retrofitting one floor of our headquarters into a childcare facility, an amount that I insisted we spend even with skeptics all around me, was about $2 million. The expenditure offered incredible return in terms of loyalty and peace of mind for our current employees. It saved them commuting time, and they were close by if their child had an emergency. It was also a terrific recruiting tool. The service wasn’t free to employees: They paid for their children to be there. But, within a year, it was oversubscribed.
Smaller companies or those with a more flexible workforce should consider creating consortia to run joint childcare centers or work in partnership with existing community networks. In an economy with more parents working from home or using neighborhood workspaces, childcare attached to coworking locations should be a given.
We are not betting on the unknown here. Those countries with comprehensive childcare networks do keep mothers working. In France, where national childcare begins when a baby is two-and-a-half months old, working women who become pregnant have the peace of mind of knowing they have a care option. In Quebec, Canada, a heavily subsidized care system for all children under 5 proved, over the last 20 years, to bring more women back to work and increased economic growth in that province.
We must also include elder care in our discussions and recommendations. The caring responsibilities of families do not end when the youngest child leaves home. That is not just because the emotional work of a parent is never done. It’s because more people than ever will require help well into their 80s, and the majority will rely on unpaid care from family and friends. Many of these unpaid caregivers, who are mostly women, are in the “sandwich generation” and have both children and older relatives to support. Redesigning the structure and location of senior care centers may be part of this effort, too, as we contemplate a world with a growing senior population.
One complement to senior care centers is multigenerational living. Aging populations all over the world are reviving the idea of the multigenerational family as more people become great-grandparents and even great-great-grandparents every day. This is often written about as a growing problem, a demographic time bomb where pensions are becoming unaffordable and health services overburdened. We need to turn this on its head. A large aging population could be a blessing.
The older generation is a great support system for families. Millions of grandparents in the U.S. provide childcare. But, again, we haven’t adjusted to make it easier for these vital family structures to work. For instance, many U.S. planning and zoning laws, stuck in the last century, prevent houses with separate kitchens or entrances and prohibit multifamily dwellings. This presents another path for change: we need to get local, assess these laws, and gather the steam to change them. Let’s embrace our common spaces — parks, walkways, benches, playgrounds — and forge community design that truly harnesses our human instinct to care for one another.
From My Life in Full by Indra Nooyi, published by Portfolio, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC, copyright © 2021 by Indra Nooyi
Indra Nooyi led PepsiCo as chair and CEO for more than a decade, making her one of the most powerful women in corporate America.
This article is featured in the November/December 2022 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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