One staffer has children, the other is single and getting over a breakup through vigorous water-polo practices. Who gets the Sunday off work?
Steven Bereznai, a 37-year-old Toronto journalist and perpetual single, knew who his boss was likely to choose. So he ended up serving notice that he wasn’t available for Sunday shifts any more, leaving out the water-sport detail.
“That’s not the kind of thing that an employer wants to hear: I’m not going to work because I’m going to play water polo,” says Mr. Bereznai, author of Gay and Single...Forever? 10 Things Every Gay Guy Looking for Love (and Not Finding It) Needs to Know.
“Try getting your workplace to recognize that in the same way as they’ll recognize a relationship with a spouse. … As soon as you talk kids, everyone gets goo-goo eyes. It kind of trumps everything.”
The situation had Mr. Bereznai contemplating the ways in which children and spouses can get employees certain perks at work, while singles languish with overtime, night and weekend shifts, ostensibly because they have little to go home to.
“You internalize this notion that you don’t have as much a right to a life as somebody who’s married with kids,” he says.
Mr. Bereznai is one of a burgeoning number of activists calling for a recognition of “singlism,” the stereotyping and stigmatizing of people without partners or kids. Those flying solo have long been tacitly demeaned in the social realm, they say – think of eating alone at most restaurants, and you get the idea. On blogs such as Onely, Singlutionary and First Person Singular, they document a world dismissive of solitary souls, people who may want a relationship if the right partner comes along eventually but are truly content with being alone in the meantime.
Increasingly, singles are setting their sights on discrimination in the workplace. They complain not only that marrieds with children score prime shifts, but that maternity and paternity leave rewards child-rearing and spousal benefits are inherently discriminatory against the singleton.
They’re calling on companies to introduce broader “menus” of benefits for employees who don’t have children or spouses to share them with. Think sabbaticals for self-development in lieu of mat leave, or money toward retirement or eldercare of family members instead of spousal benefits.
Bella DePaulo, author of the new book Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It, advocates for “cafeteria” options “where everyone gets the same amount,” be it dollars or time.
“The idea would be you create equivalencies so no worker is privileged over any other worker. It shouldn’t be about ‘Are you married?’ or ‘Do you have kids?’ but what are you contributing to the workplace.”
The North American trend of delaying, and in some cases forgoing, marriage and children means employers need to “get out of the traditional family box,” says Laura S. Scott, author of Two is Enough: A Couple’s Guide to Living Childless by Choice.
“Maybe it’s not going to the child’s recital, it’s going to the dog agility class. There are different values,” Ms. Scott says.
While she doesn’t think an employer should be forced to subsidize staffers taking leave to “sit around and watch TV for 12 weeks,” Piper Hoffman suggests sabbaticals should be granted, beyond mat and pat leave, to include pursuits that are “significant to the person’s life.”
Ms. Hoffman, an employment lawyer who blogs about workplace issues and “the childfree,” first made that case during a classroom discussion when she was in her third year at Harvard Law School. She suggested that leave “privileges breeding.”
“My opinion … was that if leave would be available to parents, it should also be available to people who choose to make some other significant commitment of their time. I didn’t see any moral distinction between having children and having a life goal of, say, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or something. I was the only person in the room who felt that way.”
Today, Ms. Hoffman believes that such leave could increase productivity, employee retention and overall job satisfaction.
So just how did singlism take root?
Dr. DePaul says: “A lot of people who bought into the conventional wisdom and went from their parents’ home to college or work, and then into marriage, they just assume they were doing the thing that made them better people – happier, healthier and just better.
“This idea that maybe you could be just fine if you’re single … is threatening to some fundamental belief system of what it means to be a good, worthy and important person.”
Another factor may be “matrimania,” she explains: That’s “the over-the-top hyping of weddings, marriage and coupling.”
Ms. Hoffman says another element of singlism is “the recent phenomenon of fetishizing child-rearing. That inherently devalues people who have chosen not to have children.”
Still, some suggest that singles who sneer at “breeders” are not aiding the conversation.
“If we truly believe that we want to support human existence for all employees, then we can't begin from the point of lumping people into categories and disrespecting them, whatever their choices or life stage happens to be,” says Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family and a long-time work-life consultant.
Ms. Spinks says insurance companies and benefits consultants are increasingly offering alternative benefits: “If you don't have a spouse, then if there's a cash equivalent there's a flexible spending account that gives you cash. Instead of that $250 going towards a spousal benefit, you can use that for a fitness membership or something else.”
As for whether there will ever be a large-scale singles’ revolt, Mr. Bereznai doubts it.
“When you look at maternity leave and paternity leave, those things didn’t just happen. They were laughed at, at different times. People fought for it.”
Alas, many singles aren’t fighters, he posits.
“Most people who are single have it in their minds that they don’t want to be single. They don’t want to invest in something that they don’t want to remain. They want to leave singlehood behind and become a couple.”