The Economy Can't Afford a 'Parenthood' Penalty

Becoming a parent doesn’t have to be a bad career move

Dashing from work to school or nursery, and then hot-footing it home to rush through dinner, homework and bedtime stories. Maybe then you might switch your laptop back on to catch up on emails?

Sound familiar?

I’m reminded of Mr Rush, the diminutive purple character created by Roger Hargreaves who dashes everywhere but never achieves much because he is doing everything at breakneck speed.

With Bright Horizons, we’ve published the Modern Families Index 2018, new research on how parents are combining work and family life, and we’ve found a picture of mothers and fathers across the country navigating against a stiff breeze. More than a third of parents told us they don’t have the right balance of time or money to see their family thrive.

Instead, many parents are buckling under the strain of their workloads. We found that four out of ten parents working 35-36 hours are putting in a whopping seven extra hours a week. To put it more simply, they are doing six days’ worth of work rather than five.

This can’t come without a price.

Four out of ten parents told us that work stops them from being able to say good night to their children often or all of the time and the same proportion said that work stopped them being able to help their children with homework. More than a quarter of parents said that work leads to rows with their partner.

All employees who have been in their job for at least 26 weeks have the right to request flexible working – whether they have caring responsibilities or not – but parents told us that in itself this is not enough. More than a third of parents who work flexibly feel burnt out all or most of the time and, digging more deeply, the flexibility that they have negotiated doesn’t necessarily translate into control over their working hours or over their start and finish times. Is this really flexibility at all?

The parents we spoke to are starting to take drastic action to improve their work life balance. Nearly one in five parents told us that they have deliberately stalled their careers and more than one in 10 have turned down a promotion because it wouldn’t give them the balance that they need. With more than 11 million working parents in our labour market, our economy can ill afford this ‘parenthood penalty’.

The truth is that the longer we work, the less productive we become. Unrealistic workloads and expectations around an ‘always on’ culture certainly aren’t doing UK families any favours. But they’re no help to UK plc either.

What needs to change? Here are my three fixes:

  • The UK Government is reviewing flexible working legislation next year. There’s a real opportunity to turn the labour market on its head and make flexibility the normal way of working rather than the exception. The Prime Minister recently exhorted businesses to do just this.
  • We’re still in a society that is set up around women shouldering most of the burden for childcare, even though men up and down the country are the primary care givers in their families. Parental and paternity leave rights from day one in the job and a new extended, properly paid period of leave just for fathers would help us go faster on the journey towards equality at work.
  • Employers can think through what the role really needs before they advertise any new job - not just the skills, but the when and the where and the how long for. How can they get not only the best person for the job but also the best job for the person? Our Happy to Talk Flexible Working strapline is always a useful first step.

The parenthood penalty is very real. But becoming a parent doesn’t have to be a bad career move.


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