Lately, I’ve been noticing something strange. Work is getting easier. Not easy. But easier.

And I think I have figured out why.

The kids are gone.

I am a higher ed person with two kids in college. In two different states. Neither of which is the state that my wife and I live.

To work in academia is to work all the time. The big thing that people outside of higher ed get wrong about academic careers is how hard academics work.

The data on professors shows an average workweek of 61 hours.   I bet that this is an underestimate.

There are no data that I know of on alt-ac work hours. Every alternative academic that I know work all the time.

Raising children is staggeringly time-consuming. And in contrast to the conventional wisdom and childrearing, the older kids get the more time they seem to consume. (Although academic parents with younger kids will surely disagree, I don’t remember much about those years).

I basically spent the entirety of the Obama presidency driving my kids to sports.

Nowadays, my time is my own.

I need to get home to let the dog out, but that’s about it. When the dog moves on to emeritus status (a euphemism – she is 14), I’ll have no daily family responsibilities beyond those necessary to keep my wife and me alive.

All this extra time – non-kid time leaves more time for my higher ed job. As my family time responsibilities have lessened, my work responsibilities feel more manageable.

What does this say about work and family?

Probably nothing good

As a society, we do a terrible job of getting work/life balance correct. Higher ed is maybe among the worst offender.

You’d think with the ability to work more flexibly that we’d be better in academia than other industries. Think again. Flexible academic work mostly translates into all-the-time work.

Academia is a hugely competitive industry. We are facing structural challenges of demographic, economic, competitive, and political headwinds. Every school seems to be fighting over an ever-smaller pie. Scarcity is being wired into our operating systems.

Academics, both traditional and alternative, work long hours because we are embedded in an ecosystem that demands this sort of commitment. The expectations around productivity have only increased, while the number of hours in a day has not.

When the kids were at home, I was continually failing at most everything. Failing to be able to give either my full attention to work or the kids. Now, if I fail at work, I can no longer blame the kids. They are gone.

I’m grateful to all my colleagues over the years who stepped in when I couldn’t be around. When the kids were sick. When there was a teacher in-service day. When we were off on college tours.

I think about all the other family responsibilities that cause academics to juggle multiple roles and multiple commitments. How many of our colleagues are taking care of parents or other family members? Who among you are managing both your academic career and aging parents?

Academic careers shouldn’t only feel manageable when the kids are out of the house.

Work in higher ed should make sense for parents and caregivers, as well as for empty nesters.

How has your academic job changed as your family life has evolved?

Inside Higher Ed