A new family policy: breadwinning and the sandwich generation

Dalia Ben-Galim Family policy is back on the agenda. Although not necessarily explicit, the Government’s policies often seem to be based on stereotypes of a traditional family. IPPR’s recent work – on breadwinners and the sandwich generation – has revealed that these stereotypes and assumptions are simply not the reality for many families, and have not been for a long time. In fact, current policies often undermine the economic well-being of families. There is scope to reframe family policy recognising that some policy actually constrains choices. Women’s roles in family life IPPR’s new analysis highlighted that over 2.2 million working mums are now breadwinners – an increase of 1 million since 1996/97. This means that almost one in three of all working mothers with dependent children are now the primary breadwinner for their family earning as much as or more than their partners, or are single mothers. The analysis showed that the overall trend of rising maternal breadwinning is consistent across age, income and family type even though there are differences between some of these groups. The changes are largely driven by: an increase in women’s employment and levels of education; changing family dynamics such as a rise in lone parent families; as well as changes to men’s employment – especially that of low-paid men, who have largely seen their wages stagnate. The analysis unequivocally demonstrates that mothers’ incomes are vital to the economic survival of a rising number of families. Yet despite this profound social change, many working mums – the majority of whom also take primary responsibility for care – still face significant barriers to entering and remaining in work. Barriers which include a lack of flexible work opportunities, unaffordable childcare and gendered parental leave entitlements are still based on outdated stereotypes.

On older women, again we were simply responding to a trend that is already a part of family life for many. A growing ‘sandwich generation’ of women are caring for their children and / or grandchildren as well as an elderly parent. There has been a sharp rise in grandparents and particularly grandmothers providing childcare. Half of new mothers depend on informal care provided by grandparents. Three quarters of grandparents care for their grandchildren, and more than one in four (28 per cent) of those with grandchildren under 16 also have a parent who is still alive. Grandmothers who care for their grandchildren are more likely to be younger, in work, and belong to lower-income households. Two thirds (66 per cent) of grandmothers who provide between 10–19 hours of childcare a week earn less than £25,999, compared to the 25 per cent who earn £44,000 or more. This difference in part can be attributed to the high cost of childcare. Older women of this ‘sandwich generation’ are more likely than men to have given up work as a result of their greater caring responsibilities; this disparity is particularly acute for older women on low incomes. By the age of 59, there is a 50/50 chance that women will have been a carer for a sustained period of time. Research shows that 17 per cent of unemployed women gave up work to care, compared to just 1 per cent of men. And although the labour market position of older women has greatly improved over the last few decades with a dramatic rise in employment, unemployment and in particular long-term unemployment is worryingly high. Care Both these trends– of increased breadwinners and a swelling of the sandwich generation –don’t seem likely to reverse in the short term given wider demographic, social and economic trends. For many families this research simply reflects their daily lives. Caring for family members – children, parents and extended family – is something that many want to do and brings much joy and satisfaction. But there are also real challenges that include increased stress, financial strain and unstable employment. The difficult question emerges of how best to support families so that they have choice and stability, as well as the flexibility to respond to individual circumstances. Caring is still a gender issue. Despite increased breadwinning, women are overrepresented as carers which contributes to their under-representation in

positions of influence and power. The gender pay gap and in particular the ‘motherhood pay penalty’ that opens up for women once they have children is cumulative; women’s primary responsibility for childcare often influences the type of work and the options they have available after having children. This undermines the well-being and livelihood of many families. It is important to recognise that care is still too often the primary responsibility of women irrespective of their employment status and it contributes to a gender pay gap. Affordable childcare is vital. The politics of childcare is finally on the political agenda and will remain key in the run-up to 2015 given the high proportion of household income that families spend on childcare. If early years provision is to offer opportunities for the next generation, affordability has to go hand in hand with ensuring universal access and quality. This means challenging the government’s current proposals on tax-free childcare but also recognising that investment is needed. Some of that can be paid for by increasing maternal employment rates, and reforming current spend. But political spending choices will also be a critical part of this on-going debate. Affordable childcare will reduce the number of hours that grandparents formally look after their grandchildren, but it won’t diminish their role as grandparents. Parents will want to rely on grandparents and in particular grandmothers for regular childcare and as a back up. Working and caring With many of these grandmothers still in work, there is not yet a recognition that some may need more flexibility in their work. Add to this the fact that many also provide care for their elderly parent and spouse and it’s clear that a lack of flexibility can be stressful and financially crippling. The right to request flexible working is helpful, but we need more creative solutions. Income smoothing schemes offer potential. ‘Family caring time’ schemes could be developed to allow employees to reduce their working hours and salary at times of need. When employees return to work their hours would increase, but they would still be paid their reduced salary. So for example if someone’s parent was due to have a hip replacement, they could reduce their working hours by 50 per cent over a three-month period to support their parent through recovery and rehabilitation. They would reduce their income over a six-month period to 75 per cent. The employee would know that their job was secure, while gaining the flexibility required to

care and being paid throughout the period (although at a lower rate); the employer would have the security of knowing that the employee would return to their normal hours after this period of intensive care. More progressive leave could also enable families to make the choices that work best for them. A bloc of leave that would provide mothers with a leave entitlement sufficient to protect her health and that of her baby; a similar paid entitlement for fathers, on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis; and a third bloc of shared parental leave that could be split by parents (with scope to consider the role of grandparents) in whatever way works for them and their family, could provide more choices for families. Family life is diverse and dynamic – current policy is often based on outdated stereotypes and is static. Universal affordable childcare, genuinely flexible work and progressive parental leave would go a long way towards responding to the daily reality of people’s lives. Dalia Ben-Galim is an Associate Director at IPPR. She tweets @dalia_bengalim Political notes are published by One Nation Register. They are a monthly contribution to the debates shaping Labour’s political renewal. The articles published do not represent Labour’s policy positions. To contact political notes, email onenationregister@gmail.com

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