A new report from IPPR, and supported by Relate, has found that more women than ever are now the main breadwinner in their households. One in three working mothers is now the main earner in their homes - this is an overwhelming 80% rise in the last 15 years. The report shows that maternal breadwinning has increased for all family types, for all age groups and across all income groups, over the last 15 years:
• mothers in couples breadwinning has increased from 18% to 31%
• co-habiting mothers breadwinning has doubled
• the employment rate of lone mothers has increased from 43% to 58%
• maternal breadwinning among 16-26 year-olds has increased from 11% to 18%
• more than a third of mothers with a degree-level qualification are breadwinning, an increase from 29%
• a quarter of mothers without degrees are now breadwinning, compared with less than 20%.
A real shift has taken place here - and far more quickly than many of us realised. While many commentators have been weighing up the benefits and issues around the idea of women not only working but earning more than their male counterparts, women across the country have simply been getting on with earning a living. As more women expect to work and to earn, combined with the impact of the current economic difficulties, female breadwinning has simply become a reality.
The impact of the financial crisis has exacerbated this trend. The report shows that Scotland, Wales and the North of England rely most heavily on working mums for family income. Scotland has the highest levels of maternal breadwinning at 32%, with 31% in Wales, the North East and the North West. This is compared with just 26% in the East of England and South West and 27% in London and the South East. The report argues that this is because of the decline of manufacturing industry in these regions, which has led to more men out of work. The UK's regions also have a large public sector workforce which proportionately employs more women than men.
The report is timely and it demonstrates how government policy has not kept pace with the changing nature of family life. In the area of parental leave, in particular, we have a long way to go. The family is the foundation of our society and it's no longer enough to suggest that the spheres of home and work do not overlap, when increasing numbers of us participate in both family life and the workplace. In a society where, through choice and necessity, both partners are working, it makes no sense for our leave allowance to only make room for maternity leave.
The report argues that families could be better supported by a more progressive parental leave system. This would not only provide mothers with a leave entitlement sufficient to protect her health and that of her baby, but also support a similar paid entitlement for fathers on a 'use it or lose it' basis. A third bloc of shared parental leave, also paid, could be split by parents in a way that works for them and their family. This isn't new ground - Iceland has recently passed a law allowing for maternity, paternity and parental leave to be taken according to what works for each family.
We also welcome the call in the report for greater support to be made available to family life. In particular, that couples should have access to support as they become parents to improve the quality of their relationships. Services at important life transition points should include a focus on personal and social relationships, their impact on individual and family wellbeing, how to maintain relationship quality and how to manage conflict. At Relate, we know that these life transitions, such as becoming a parent, children leaving home or moving into retirement can place additional stress on relationships. We often see new parents struggling to adjust to the change that a baby brings to their relationship. Starting a family should be, and often is, a joyous time. But for some, the strain is too much, and what should be a celebration of the relationship between two parents actually becomes their undoing.
The way we work and the roles we take on as part of a family affect our relationships every day, but as the report shows, government policy is not keeping up with what is now the norm for many British families. The inflexibility of parental leave and the high cost of childcare in the UK are making it more difficult for families to decide and implement what works best for them. We need to ensure that government policy empowers people to make the right decisions for their families, and we need to see this change sooner rather than later - the economic shift towards female breadwinners has already taken place. It's encouraging to see, in the announcement made just yesterday, that the government is looking into more childcare options, but we must ensure that reform takes note of all family models, and that families are not pressured into a situation which does not benefit them and their relationships.