The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Netflix just made parenting a lot easier for some of its employees. It also exposed a flaw in how we view paid leave.

Paid time off for new parents shouldn't be an exclusive perk for elite workers.

Photo: iStock

Last week, the online streaming service Netflix announced it would offer (most) employees unlimited paid parental leave of up to one year. The news was met with resounding approval, and indeed, the policy is a laudable step in the right direction: It fosters gender parity by bringing paternity leave into the mainstream, and it will certainly make life a bit easier for Netflix employees juggling the demands of work and parenthood. And it’s a commercially savvy move for Netflix, which now joins the ranks of companies like Virgin Airlines and Facebook that offer paid parental leave. (Netflix also hopes the move will help retain the most talented employees and boost work performance, as it stated explicitly on its blog.)

But it’s also a sharp reminder that the United States is the only developed nation that does not guarantee its citizens paid maternity or paternity leave. The closest our country comes to a comprehensive policy is the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which gives about half of all workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

While new paid leave policies are a boon for top-tier companies and their employees, framing extended parental leave as a perk to attract and retain top talent has troubling implications for the average American worker. Most employees are not hired for their advanced skills, intelligence or innovation, as they are at Facebook or Netflix. Rather, the average American worker is, well, average. They’re hired because they can do a job — often at a relatively low wage — and working for one of the country’s most glamorous employers is not in their future. That’s why making elite professional achievement a prerequisite for what’s considered a basic right in most developed nations is highly troubling: It’s a form of the meritocracy myth that impacts the next generation — and perpetuates the idea that a person’s economic potential determines whether or not he or she is deserving of family leave.

It’s not completely fair to blame corporations for sounding corporate. If prosperous tech and financial companies can offer benefits to boost their bottom line, why wouldn’t they? What’s troubling is not that these companies offer parental leave beyond what’s required by law, but how it’s aligned with hip job perks and exclusive incentives. Consider listicles like “Unique Job Benefits that Keep Employees Happy”  and “40 Coolest Tech Company Benefits,” which both include extended paid parental leave. On the “21 Employee Perks that Attract the Best Talent” list, it’s even listed between “free on-site spa service” and “drink fridge.” Anything for the bodies that house the best minds!  

Even within Netflix, talent and economic potential are determining factors between employees who receive unlimited leave and those who do not. The Huffington Post reports that employees in the DVD division aren’t covered by the new policy — employees who are not highly skilled, in-demand tech workers. This divide highlights how the new policy widens the gap between hotshot tech gurus and average workers.

Clustering luxurious job perks with extended parental leave blurs the distinction between privilege and what should be guaranteed by public policy. It takes the onus off a democracy to create infrastructure that supports all families and turns what should be a social responsibility into a private choice. The resulting message is clear, and pretty harsh: If you were ambitious, brainy and hard-working enough to gain entry into a company that gives its employees “special perks,” you’re entitled to greater job stability and family security. If not, you get what you deserve.

The benefits of paid leave for both new parents and the businesses that employ them are well-documented. First-time mothers who take paid leave are more likely than those who take unpaid leave or no leave to return to the same employer, according to a 2015 report from the National Partnership for Women and Families. The report also found that paid leave increases employee productivity, loyalty and morale.

It follows that in California, one of three states that currently offer a statewide paid-leave program, 83 percent of workers in “lower quality” jobs who took advantage of the program returned to their previous employer, a 10-point improvement over those who did not. What’s more, a big majority of businesses in California (87 percent) had no increased costs as a result of the program, and 9 percent indicated that the program had generated cost savings by reducing employee turnover and/or their own benefit costs.

Despite the evidence that paid leave has benefits at all economic levels, it continues to be imbued with value by its ability to retain the best workers. When former Hewlett-Packard executive and GOP presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina spoke out in opposition to a government-mandated paid leave policy, she noted that the private sector in general and Netflix specifically knew what it needed to do to “attract the right talent” — again, making talent a critical part of the equation and of the cultural conversation.

To be clear, disparity in who gets to take time off is nothing new. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 11 percent of American workers have access to paid family leave. Parental leave has long been a middle-class luxury, afforded by families that can absorb the price of a caretaker or the cost of one parent leaving the workforce.

But adding talent into the equation also brings in variables of entitlement and personal worth. It takes the conversation eerily close to “The Rise of Meritocracy,” the satirical essay by sociologist Michael Young, for which the term was coined. The essay depicts a future dystopian society in which effort and IQ determine one’s merit. In short, what you offer the system determines what the system offers you.

In a society that deeply prizes rugged individualism and personal achievement, it’s not hard to see how the line between decent policy and special rewards can get a little fuzzy. Perhaps upholding extended parental leave as a coveted prize is a natural outgrowth of an economic system that uses rewards to reinforce hard work and talent at all levels. From employee-of-the-month awards to using competition to enhance the entire team, vying for the No. 1 slot is part of the fabric of many workplaces. Even customer rewards programs operate on the premise that those who put in more (money) deserve special benefits.

And that’s not to mention the way competition between companies works to reinforce and retain talent. Look at the way Microsoft quickly followed suit by enhancing its parental leave policy the day after Netflix’s announcement. (It also couched the decision in similar cost-benefit terms, noting that giving employees the extra time to spend with family made them better equipped them “to bring their ‘A’ game to work every day to achieve our [Microsoft’s] mission.”)

Even though President Obama discussed paid leave as an essential economic issue in his January State of the Union address, it’s unrealistic to believe the United States will see a comprehensive change as long as the myths of meritocracy persist: Life isn’t fair, there are haves and have nots, and unfortunately, some children do get left behind. But how long can the most talented individuals reap special benefits before collective responsibility kicks in?

If Netflix’s policy is to be truly revolutionary, it won’t be because it bestows a premium perk upon a select few, but rather because it illuminates why a nationwide parental leave policy is needed — and deserved — by so many more.

CORRECTION: This post originally misidentified the author of “The Rise of Meritocracy.” It was Michael Young, not Michael Lewis.