It’s time to change the way we work and care

Photo credit:   gregorywass

August 1, 2013 // By: Anna Coote

Women today are squeezed between pressures to work for a living, and pressures to care. On both sides, the pressures are intensifying. 

The government’s narrative about ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’ sends out a strong message that working for money is the only worthwhile way to contribute to society - the longer and harder you work, the better.  Meanwhile, there are growing numbers of frail and disabled parents, mostly cared for by their daughters or daughters-in-law, who have also been (and often still are) the main carers of their own children. Yet there is nowhere near enough high-quality, affordable care, for children or adults, to cover the time spent in paid work by women with caring responsibilities. 

The effect of these pressures is that a great many women are trapped in low-paid, marginal employment and have little or no time to call their own. Care workers are often in the same boat. The choice is grim: do a dead-end part-time job to earn just enough to pay for someone else to look after your children and/or ailing parent while you are at work; or give up paid work altogether and live off the resources of a third party (your husband, partner or the punitive regime of the ‘reformed’ welfare state).

What’s gone wrong? Women fought long and hard for the right to enter paid employment on equal terms with men. But this has never been matched with any equivalent movement of men into unpaid caring. So the terms have never been equal. Instead, inequalities between women and men remain deeply entrenched.  

In the current issue of Soundings, Jacob Mohun Himmelweit and I argue that the best way out of this impasse is to move towards a shorter working week.  If everyone – male and female – put in 30 hours of paid work a week, instead of 40 hours or more, this would open up a range of opportunities for doing things differently. These arguments are explored in more detail in the forthcoming book Time on our Side: why we all need a shorter working week, published by nef in September this year. 

In effect, with a 30-hour norm, part-time would become the new full-time. The pressures on women of combining paid work and caring would ease substantially. Part-timers would no longer be marginalised once this became the standard pattern of paid employment for men as well as women.  The corrosive inequalities of income and power between women and men would begin to dissolve.  Men could build their capabilities as parents and carers. Children would get more time with their fathers as well as their mothers and develop less polarised views about male and female identities. 

If one or both adults contributed some of their newly-released hours to the nursery or day centre where family members were being looked after, adding their time, skills and experience to that of paid care workers this could help to transform the quality, quantity and affordability of care services. 

Of course, the call for a shorter working week throws the issue of pay into sharp relief. For many, working shorter hours would mean abject poverty. But the answer to the problem of low pay is not to force people to work long hours to feed and house their families. It must be tackled on its own ground. This calls for a broad strategy on low pay that goes well beyond defending the National Minimum Wage, to include education, training and pressures on employers to improve pay and conditions.

An effective strategy on low pay would need to ask what is a reasonable wage for workers who put in 30 rather than 40 or 50 hours a week.  It will also need to tackle the underlying causes of low pay. These can be traced to the way we have learned to value and distribute time, as well as to the spectacular and unjustifiable rise in income inequalities over the last three decades.

Fifty years ago, the American author Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, widely credited with launching ‘second wave feminism’, or the women’s liberation movement, which raged through the late 1960s and 1970s. It exposed what Friedan called ‘the problem that has no name’: something invisible, yet painfully experienced.  Women felt obliterated by an unquestioned division of labour and purpose, which they had not chosen and could not control. 

Today, there’s a different, but closely related problem.  It is not so much enforced joblessness and domesticity that afflict women today, as the combined pressures of paid work and caring. The root of the problem remains the same: under-valued responsibilities and stifled opportunities, locked in place by the gendered distribution of labour and time. 

Download the Soundings article by Anna Coote and Jacob Mohun Himmelweit


Work & Time

It’s time to change the way we work and care

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