Working on parents

The UK government's new employment rights for parents could cause as many problems as they solve.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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From this week, working parents in the UK will gain some new employment rights. Alongside an increase in statutory maternity leave and pay (1), and the introduction of statutory paid paternity leave for up to two weeks (2), is a more novel idea: the right to request flexible working (3).

Coming out of the Department of Trade and Industry’s (DtI) much-vaunted work-life balance campaign, this legislation gives employees with children under age six (and disabled children under 18), the right to ask for a form of flexible working, which includes such things as ‘annualised hours, compressed hours, flexitime, homeworking, job-sharing, self-rostering, shift working, staggered hours and term-time working’ (4).

The legislation – pithily summarised as ‘Flexible working – the right to request and the duty to consider’ – is likely to be positively received, as a practical attempt by the government to ameliorate some of the tensions experienced by people trying to work full-time and raise a family. But before we start wetting our future babies’ heads in celebration, we should consider the long-term implications of these immediate benefits.

Rather than being merely a pragmatic move to achieve a better ‘balance’ between work and life, the flexible working proposals involve a thoroughgoing renegotiation of the public and private spheres of life. The trend is towards the privatisation of work, and the professionalisation of parenting: and this does working parents no favours at all.

The move to legislate in favour of flexible working is based on a recognition of the end of the single breadwinner role, and that the fact that increasing numbers of parents both work (or want to work) creates difficulties in caring for children. And it is certainly true that the inflexibility of school nursery hours, the tendency of young children to fall suddenly ill, and the changes in childcare routines brought about by the school holidays, for example, place a number of pressures on parents who work full-time. By allowing employees to manage their work around the needs of their children, it is hoped that working parents will find these tensions easier to manage.

But. While these problems undoubtedly exist, why should flexible working be seen as the solution, rather than, say, flexible childcare? There is an assumption that the workplace must let go of its traditional attachment to the 9-5-or-later working hours culture; yet the same, surely, could be said of nursery provision.

If parents were able to access childcare when they needed it, for as long as they needed it, and if special provision existed for the school holidays and caring for sick children, this would arguably do a great deal more to reduce the childcare pressures on working parents than the ability to negotiate a laptop for the day, so that mum can work at home in the evening when dad gets back.

There is much discussion about the need for more and better childcare, so that both parents are able to work at all. But there is strikingly little debate about the need for a childcare system that gives parents access when they want, for how The UK government’s new employment rights for parents could cause as many problems as they solve.ver long they want, for whatever reasons they want. Why? Because the government’s interest in childcare – like its interest in flexible working – is not based on the desire to give parents more choices. It is based on the desire to make people into better parents.

This is spelt out in the DtI’s January 2003 report, Balancing Work and Family Life: enhancing choice and support for parents (5). ‘Good parenting and strong family relationships are key factors in providing children with the best possible start in life’, it states. ‘Helping mothers and fathers to balance work and family life can, by helping them meet their parenting responsibilities, have positive impacts on their children’s health, schooling and prospects in later life.’ For the government, meeting one’s ‘parenting responsibilities’ is not simply about ensuring that your child is loved and cared for. It is about providing an active, professional role in their upbringing and development.

Work and nursery-care are seen, not as important for the options that they offer to parents, but as means to the end of Good Parenting. Good Parenting means being around to spend to time with your children, ‘reading, playing and helping them with their homework’ (6) – something that, so far as the government is concerned, cannot be compressed into a weekend. Maybe you do want to get home before bathtime story – but is it really going to harm your child if you don’t make it?

It means taking 26 weeks’ maternity leave, rather than 18, as ‘it is best for children if they can receive intensive parental contact for the first months’ (7). Many new mothers would no doubt welcome extended maternity leave for their own sake. But to expect that they should take the extra weeks (and the pittance that brings with it) for the sake of the children is as much another pressure point as it is a choice.

Good Parenting means involving fathers: ‘Fathers are more likely to work long hours, and therefore it is generally they who miss out most on the opportunity to share in the upbringing of their children.’ (8) Again, if a father wants to be home for the evening, fair enough. But for some couples, that might not be the most sensible thing to do – and clearly, from the government’s point of view, having dad at home so mum can work long hours is not an acceptable alternative. Both parents, it seems, should be equally there and equally involved.

When you look at the assumptions beneath these new ‘rights’ for working parents, it seems that they are, above all, a new means of ensuring that parents take parenting seriously – that they treat it not as something that they just do, but a skill that they practise with as much thought and diligence as they do their day-jobs.

The professionalisation of parenting is particularly clear in the government’s discussion of low-income families. ‘Supporting low-income parents is particularly important’, states the DtI document on work-life balance. ‘Low-skilled workers and their families are particularly at risk of parental and family stress, because their earnings are lower and they tend to have less choice over how they balance their work and family responsibilities.’ (9)

In dealing with these families, getting them into work is crucial, because: ‘The government’s strategy for tackling child poverty recognises that, for those who can work, moving into and remaining in work are the best ways to reduce and prevent poverty.’ (10) But to get them into work, providing childcare is not enough. It needs to be the right kind of childcare, which can best instil the ethos of Good Parenting.

Hence the ‘Sure Start’ programmes – a childcare scheme aimed explicitly at parents in deprived areas, which ‘works with parents-to-be, parents and children under four to promote the physical, intellectual and social development of babies and young children, particularly those who are disadvantaged, so that they can flourish at home and when they get to school’ (11). Through a combination of work and Sure Start, the government hopes to raise a whole new generation of model parents, enabled by the state to ‘meet their parenting responsibilities’ and get off the dole.

The government’s work-life balance strategy is posed as a means of ‘supporting parents’ choices to balance work and family life’. But the rhetoric of supporting parents’ choices disguises the political agenda behind the promotion of issues such as flexible working. This is not a triumph of individual choice over the traditional social prescription of stay-at-home mums and breadwinner dads. It is a new kind of prescription, which demands that both parents work – but that they are simultaneously intensely involved with the day-to-day raising of their kids.

Of course, many parents do want to help with their child’s homework, be there for the school sports day, take time out when their toddler has flu. Many women do not want to go back to work three months after the birth of their child; many fathers would like to spend some time at home with their new baby. But to turn these impulses into the required skills of Good Parenting raises new tensions for parents both in their work, and in their personal life.

In developing the new right to flexible working, the government has been careful to cover its back. Recognising that not all companies can provide the kinds of jobs that are suited to flexibility, the legislation is phrased in cautious terms: ‘The right to request, and the duty to consider.’ The legislation does not say that working parents have to work flexibly, or that companies have to let them do so. But even setting up this formal option places pressure on both sides.

For example, what of the employee who is quite happy with her fixed working hours and full-time nursery care, but whose child’s occasional bouts of sickness leads to suggestions that she work flexibly – or, at least, an expectation that she should? What of the employee who wants to return to full-time work after three months, but is aware that she is expected to stay off for six and to use her flexible rights to ensure that she can be there for the afternoon playtime, and make up the work in the evenings?

What of the employer, mindful of the ‘duty to consider’ flexible working but unable successfully to implement it, who ends up breeding workplace resentment between parents and the childless, and jeopardising the work of a whole team? What of the company that believes that its own success should take priority over the special personal needs of its staff – is that no longer a valid position? And is a parent no longer allowed to put his or her career first?

Flexible working no doubt carries some advantages for some individuals, and some companies. But as an employment right, it represents the opposite of workplace equality. The ‘right to request and the duty to consider’ institutionalises special pleading, in the sense that parents’ personal needs are elevated to the forefront of their employers’ minds; and it is treating them the same as everybody else that is viewed as discrimination, rather than treating them differently. For anybody who appreciates the separation between work and private life, this is something of a problem.

More fundamentally, this elevation of parents’ personal priorities in the workplace diminishes the importance of work as a public, achievement-orientated activity. In the bygone days of the stay-at-home mum, the argument about the importance of enabling mothers to work was about recognising the limits imposed by the private sphere on their role in society. Work was about getting out there into the public world, about being an independent individual taking part in broader social discussions and aspirations, as opposed to simply being a private appendage: wife and mother.

Now, however, it seems that work is being privatised – and so far as working mothers are concerned, you could say that we have come full circle. The government’s attachment to the enabling mothers to work is often posed, not in terms of what they can achieve in the public role, but in the personal, therapeutic benefits of work in creating a good parent. In this worldview, work is good not because it makes for women’s independence, but because it makes for their inclusion in the accepted framework of how one should treat work and live life.

Work is promoted because it avoids isolation and builds self-esteem – but once it risks damaging parents’ ability to ‘meet their parenting responsibilities’, it is seen as problematic. The attraction of flexible working is that it allows parents to put their private responsibilities first, while getting the therapeutic benefits of being out of the house. And the ethos of ‘work-life balance’ means that any separation between public and private roles becomes increasingly unfashionable. Employees are exhorted to take their private life into the office – just as they are encouraged to take their work home.

As with many pieces of New Labour legislation, ‘Flexible working – the right to request and the duty to consider’ may prove fairly toothless in practice. Those who want to take advantage of their new ‘rights’ may find it difficult to do so; those who do not want to change their work-life balance will probably just carry on regardless. But that makes the impulse behind this legislation no less problematic.

I’m not a working parent, but I do know one thing. Professionals make lousy parents, and employees who obsess on their private lives never do any work. Rather than promoting work-life balance, wouldn’t the government do better to leave companies to work, and give us back our lives?

Read on:

spiked-debate: Work-life balance

(1) MATERNITY LEAVE – CHANGES, A basic summary (PL507 Rev 3), Department of Trade and Industry

(2) PATERNITY – LEAVE AND PAY, A basic summary (PL514 Rev 1), Department of Trade and Industry

(3) FLEXIBLE WORKING – THE RIGHT TO REQUEST, A basic summary (PL516 Rev 1), Department of Trade and Industry

(4) FLEXIBLE WORKING – THE RIGHT TO REQUEST, A basic summary (PL516 Rev 1), Department of Trade and Industry

(5) Balancing work and family life: enhancing choice and support for parents, Department of Trade and Industry

(6) Balancing work and family life: enhancing choice and support for parents, Department of Trade and Industry

(7) Balancing work and family life: enhancing choice and support for parents, Department of Trade and Industry

(8) Balancing work and family life: enhancing choice and support for parents, Department of Trade and Industry

(9) Balancing work and family life: enhancing choice and support for parents, Department of Trade and Industry

(10) Balancing work and family life: enhancing choice and support for parents, Department of Trade and Industry

(11) Balancing work and family life: enhancing choice and support for parents, Department of Trade and Industry

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Topics Politics


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