Employers have made huge strides in tailoring their benefit programs to the needs of the diverse talent they seek to recruit and retain. Much of their effort in recent years has been focused on family supportive benefits that aid in family formation and help working parents balance the demands of child rearing with work. Parental leave harmonization—offering equivalent leave to both birthing and non-birthing parents—is a current focus for many employers. Yet, despite these and other noteworthy strides in making benefits more inclusive to diverse family structures, companies may inadvertently be overlooking the needs of a growing constituency in the global workforce, our colleagues who are single, who do not have children, and who may remain single for much or all their tenure with the organization.
Feeling overlooked and isolated
For an increasing number of workers, single living is an affirmative lifestyle choice, and for those who look forward to sharing their life with a partner and/or children, they may remain comfortably single for a longer period. Employers overlook this demographic at their peril. After investing in a generous benefit program, you don’t want a growing segment of your workforce asking, “What about me?” You certainly don’t want single employees feeling left out, or even alienated, by a program they don’t perceive to benefit them. In a 2022 study conducted by the Society for HR Management (SHRM), 87% of respondents across all family types agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “Working parents have more benefits.” Work culture may also telegraph that flexible working, pay raises, and promotions are more important for employees with children than those without, creating a glass ceiling to career progression. Attracting and retaining single employees is important, not only because of their growing numbers, but also because they may be more open to exploring new career opportunities and have fewer hesitations relocating to land their dream job. In a tight labor market, tailoring plans to their specific needs can be a differentiating feature of your employee value proposition.
Understanding a global demographic trend
Globally, young adults are choosing to postpone having children, are having fewer children, and are increasingly likely to remain single longer, or even all their lives. Single-person households are the fastest growing living arrangement worldwide, and in the Western world, couples without children make up 23.6% of all households, while single-person households represent 27.1%. The U.S. Census bureau just commemorated Unmarried and Single Americans Week (September 17-23, 2023), reporting that a record 46.6% of adults are living single. While some of this demographic shift is due to longevity gains and older people living alone, much is also due to decreasing fertility rates, young people moving to urban areas, and choosing to partner later in life. South Korea now has among the lowest fertility and marriage rates in the world, which has spawned social dialogue destigmatizing the happy single lifestyle, “honjok.” And for Korean women who decide not to marry, “bihon,” the choice is sometimes a repudiation of gender inequality in traditional relationships. In talent markets like Northern Europe, Italy, South Korea, and Japan, where the proportion of single households exceeds 30% or even 40%, employers can anticipate a commensurately larger share of single talent. Benefit programs that appear to cater predominantly to couples with children risk missing the mark.
Recommendations for employers
Employers already have the tools to support child-free employees without recreating their entire benefits package. They can look to expand existing benefits to be more inclusive and reframe or adapt them to speak better to the single employee. Using personas as a tool when designing and communicating plans can pay real dividends. Start by reviewing internal policies to identify benefits exclusively for people with children, and then identify opportunities to create greater parity. A cash equivalency can be established for many benefits afforded to parents. For example, some employers in Korea have begun offering time off or cash bonuses for single or child-free employees who meet specific age and service criteria. We’ve put together a list of benefits valued by singles and couples without children:
Family leave: Important relationships are not solely formed by blood and marriage. In addition to maternity, paternity, and parental leave, employers can expand the eligibility definitions for caregiving and bereavement leave to include individuals with whom an employee has an important relationship.
Sabbatical leave: With the length of parental leave increasing around the world, long-service leave programs give an equitable opportunity to take a significant break to pursue personally enriching experiences.
Life event recognition: In many countries, it is customary to give extra leave and bonuses for marriages, wedding anniversaries, and births. Leave grants and bonuses of comparable amounts can be given to employees who may not experience these life events but who meet specified age and service criteria, giving them opportunities to feel included and celebrated.
Pet care: Options to purchase pet insurance, support finding dog sitters/walkers (often available through an EAP), virtual veterinary medicine, and other benefits associated with our non-human loved ones, can have strong appeal single employees who may have challenges with pet care obligations, especially if their work requires business travel.
Legal services: Prepaid legal plans can be valuable to singles and those in relationships lacking legal protection. They need estate planning like everyone else and have an even greater need to actively plan who will have power over their healthcare and assets if they are incapacitated.
Lifestyle spending accounts: These programs give can give employees choice between family-related benefits and alternatives like travel subsidies, learning and development, financial planning, fitness expenses, career coaching, meal delivery, nutritional counseling, long-term care premiums, eldercare, commuter expenses, and pet care, creating a more equitable and personalized program.
Disability, critical illness, and long-term care: Although not especially innovative, these programs have value for the future security of single employees.
Culture and community: Employee resource groups, clubs, leagues, and activities that span a variety of interests can create welcome forms of community for single employees, especially if activities open to employee families are expanded to welcome a plus one, where appropriate.
As with any benefit program, communication is key to success. Consider including single-employee and couple personas of different ages—not just a young single employee. Employers should also periodically survey their employee population to stay abreast of needs, preferences, and attitudes toward benefit options. Establishing solid lines of communication, liaising with employee resource groups, and securing executive sponsorship will ensure that employees feel heard and respected. Ultimately, an employee who feels valued and supported is an employee who performs better at work and is happier in life. Employers who actively consider single employees in their inclusion strategy will see rewards in attraction and retention.