The ideal employer for two stages of life

In the make-believe world of comic strips, demanding bosses are usually played for laughs. Think of Mr. Dithers, Dagwood Bumstead's perpetually fuming boss in "Blondie." And think of all the overbearing managers in "Dilbert," keeping their hapless subordinates off balance week after week. Simon Legree lives.

But in the real world, there's nothing funny about rigid employers who fail to acknowledge that workers have lives beyond the office. Everyone wants a boss who understands that happy employees are more productive, and who accepts that even the best-laid plans for a workday can be interrupted by a call from a child's day-care center or by a car that needs repair. Mr. Dithers need not apply.

That longing for an ideal corporate world may be part of the appeal of two newly released lists of exemplary businesses.

Working Mother magazine's 19th annual "100 Best Companies for Working Women" honors "the family-friendliest companies in America." And AARP's fourth annual list of "35 Best Employers for Workers Over 50" recognizes companies that actively recruit and retain older employees.

Maturity and maternity. At first glance, these two stages of life don't appear to have much in common in the business arena. New mothers and fathers who need parental leave or adoption benefits inhabit a different world from their colleagues who are eligible for phased retirement programs.

Yet surprisingly, some of the same benefits show up on both lists. And as further evidence that benefits can serve two groups, six companies appear on both lists. These benefits that cross generational lines offer a reminder that good corporate practices can help a wide range of workers.

Flexible schedules, including part-time work, job sharing, and telecommuting, began in some firms as a way to accommodate mothers. Now they also serve older workers who don't want to log a full 40-hour week.

"People crave flexibility at all ages and stages," says Susan Lapinski, editor in chief of Working Mother.

Day-care options also help two generations of workers. "Employers are recognizing that many employees are grandparents responsible for grandchildren," says Deborah Russell, an expert on workforce issues at AARP. "They may have the same day-care issues that families with children are having,"

And then there's caregiving. "Boomers started families late," Ms. Russell says. "They still have children they are responsible for, and are now taking care of their aging parents. So the issue of caregiving is definitely transferable, whether you're talking about caring for children or older parents."

Benefits like these will become more important as the ranks of older workers grow. In 2002, 14 percent of the workforce was 55 or over. By 2012, nearly 20 percent of employees will be at least 55, an increase of more than 10 million workers in that age group, according to AARP.

Many baby boomers say they intend to work past the traditional retirement age. Already, Russell notes, several companies on this year's AARP list allow older employees to collect full retirement benefits while continuing to work part time.

Lists like these also help to measure how the workplace has changed. In 1986, when Working Mother compiled its first "best companies" list, family benefits were so uncommon that editors were happy simply to find employers who offered some kind of child care.

Today, businesses winning coveted spots on the list offer an impressive array of innovations: elder-care referral services, private lactation rooms for nursing mothers, weight loss and fitness programs, intergenerational dependent-care centers, even maternity yoga classes.

"These practices reduce absenteeism and no-shows," says Ms. Lapinski. "They increase productivity, and they build loyalty."

Two lists. Two stages of life. One common goal: to make work productive and pleasant, meeting the needs of bosses and workers alike.

Still, even the most enthusiastic listmakers might dream of a time - a corporate Age of Enlightenment - when such lists are no longer necessary, and when bosses' good business practices help all employees while increasing the bottom line.

Mr. Dithers, are you listening?

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