The Hidden Middle: Child Care Solutions for the School-Age Years

A mother working from home on the couch while her daughter does homework beside her

Roughly three-quarters of the current workforce are caregivers, for children, an aging or elderly relative, or even a pet. It should come as no surprise, then, that family care benefits are becoming more commonplace at leading companies. What were once viewed as “nice-to-have” perks are now expected pillars of a competitive benefits strategy.  

Many modern family care programs focus heavily on two essential stages of life: early child care and senior care – and for good reason. For parents of young children and those caring for their elder loved ones, finding quality, reliable care is a new and stressful process that they often need help navigating. However, there is an established infrastructure that caters specifically to these two care needs. Lost between infant and elder care, there’s a demographic of employees that too often gets lost in the shuffle. They’re called the hidden middle

What is the hidden middle? 

The hidden middle refers simply to working parents of school-aged children. This group, while prone to the same burnout and work/life conflict as other caregivers, have a unique set of needs which many care programs aren’t currently equipped to meet.  

Employer-sponsored care may seem a less pressing need for this demographic. However, in many cases, the opposite is true. Nearly half (48%) of working parents say that arranging child care feels like a full-time job in its own right.  

The pandemic highlighted the unique child care challenges affecting the hidden middle. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “Mothers of young school age children (6-12) experienced the steepest declines in employment rates in April 2020 as schools throughout the country closed to in-person instruction.” With the percentage of American children aged 6-11 expected to outpace the percentage of children aged 0-5 in the next five years, it’s essential to put a care plan in place for this growing segment of employees. 

The summer strain 

The impact of inadequate child care on parents in the hidden middle is obvious. High stress, lowered productivity, and increased financial strain are all common consequences. The problem is most evident in the summer months when children are on school break. The Center for American Progress (CAP) estimates that the average American family with two children spends up to 20% of their summer income on child care alone.  

The cost, both financial and otherwise, of child care to a parent in the hidden middle is devastating in the summer months – and the business impact is equally crushing. According to the Federal Reserve, the number of hours worked by women decline 11.2% between the months of May and July, compared to just a 5.2% drop among men. This disparity can be attributed, in large part, to working mothers having to scale back their working hours to provide child care during the summer months. 

With such a prominent responsibility distracting from their day-to-day work, it’s only natural that working parents experience disruptions to productivity and engagement. As a result, parents in the hidden middle often must choose between work and life, leading to high levels of absenteeism and churn, as well as inhibited business growth. 

Supporting the hidden middle 

The challenges facing the hidden middle are daunting, but far from unsolvable. Additional supports you can offer to working parents with school age kids include: 

Summer camps  

One of the most impactful ways you can support parents in the hidden middle is by providing them access to summer camps. These camps not only offer daily care for children in the crucial summer months, but also keep them engaged, having fun, and learning with their peers. 

School break programs  

In contrast to the more expansive summer programs, school break programs can be a great way to provide short term support for your working parents. Programs like this bridge the time between school and a parent's work schedule and offer full-time child care during school breaks. Center directors are trained in activities meant to entertain and educate older students, as opposed to the usual curriculum which is geared toward infant to preschool-aged children. 

Back-up care 

Back-up care is a great benefit to offer hidden middle parents for those one-off emergencies that impact their care coverage. One of the best ways to prevent absenteeism, back-up care ensures a parent has child care in the event their child is sick, their usual care provider falls through, or school is closed due to inclement weather or a professional development day. 

Tutoring/college prep 

Interrupted learning during the pandemic caused significant academic losses for many school-aged children. Tutoring is a way to make up for those gaps in learning for dependents aged 5-18 and assist employees with the burden of high school and college prep for their pre-teens and teenagers. Adult learners over 18 can also benefit from tutoring services as they aim to grow their knowledge base and careers. 

Rather than starting from scratch, solutions like these allow you to flex, grow, and maximize your existing family care offerings to better suit the unique needs of your hidden middle. 

A mother working from home on the couch while her daughter does homework beside her