I’ve always known I want to have children. I’ve always been ambitious for my career. I’ve always assumed there was a tension between the two, and that my friends who are also focused on their career don’t want to have children – but that is not the case. Anxiety among my peers about how to do both is widespread.
We are all now thinking about families later in life. Like many, I’m older than my parents were when they had me. With opportunities and career prospects for women much greater than they were, it seems obvious why.
Of course, not everyone has the same perspective. Attitudes to child rearing and experiences of building a family are as versatile as people’s lives. The common thread is wondering how we can maximise future choices and an anxiety about what might stand in our way.
Top of the list of concerns is housing. Babies are clearly not fussed whether parents are paying money to a landlord or to a mortgage lender, but for reasons obvious to the renting generation, owning a home is seen as essential before having a child. While needing housing security is not new, with house prices now 65 times higher than in 1970 and wages only 36 times higher, it’s more urgent than ever.
Worrying about income and work is another one. 20 years after the birth of their first child, a woman’s hourly wage will be on average a third lower than a man with a similar level of education. Progression in work shouldn’t have to slow down due to parenthood, but there are only so many hours in the day. The time you can spend earning and parenting are always limited. It should not only be women who experience these worries.
All parents should feel the pull, so we need to give fathers and co-parents more. It’s the right thing to do. And the appetite is there: survey after survey shows men want to spend more time with their families. It shouldn’t be up to companies to decide how much time is ‘normal’ for a new dad to spend with his baby. Many companies don’t even allow fathers paid time off for antenatal appointments. Is it any wonder that a sense that childcare is a woman’s responsibility sets in before birth even happens?
Shared parental leave is championed as an opportunity for parents to face the challenges and enjoy new experiences together. But it’s not as simple as that. The name is deceiving. Shared parental leave requires two companies to align two separate HR policies for both employees. Apart from goodwill, what incentive is there for that? Last year, the government’s own Equalities Office identified that shared parental leave will often require families to “reduce the breadwinner’s income”. With rising costs of living hitting families hard, the astonishingly low take-up rate won’t change.
My friends are expecting a baby and they want to do it together. They’ve had to investigate, challenge and read complicated policies just to secure the possibility. As much as I admire their tenacity, being persistent, confident, senior at work and having time while remote working should not be requirements for raising a family in a more equal way. I have no hope for people in working-class professions to negotiate this system.
Some employers are taking steps to put things right. LinkedIn posts promoting companies’ progressive policies receive a lot of positive reaction, suggesting it’s not the norm. With managerial positions likely to be held by older colleagues, is it any wonder progress is slow?
A company was featured on Woman’s Hour this week because they are supporting employees going through IVF, as any workplace should. More than HR departments hiring ‘family planning officers’ and press releasing how progressive they are, we need change for the future of our country: where economic prospects give people real choices over their lives.
The answers are obvious: affordable housing, renters’ protections, making shared parental leave more feasible, affordable childcare and recognising trade unions. The rebuttals will be financial cost and the importance of freedom for organisations and companies, which are struggling after the shock of Covid-19 and a decade of lost growth. But it shouldn’t be prospective new parents who pay the price for 12 years of failed economic management by the Conservatives. Our economy needs this for the future. The benefits of having parents in the workplace, contributing to the UK’s businesses and public services, are too great to miss out on. And it’s the right thing to do.
Young people are ambitious for their future. Women want the careers they have dreamed of, men want the chance to take an active role in their families, and it’s good for children to experience shared parenting. A Labour government should make that a reality.