Real men work part-time, too

`Hobbies were the last thing I wanted to do. It was always a bit depressing'; `Dreaming, doing nothing is an important part of living'
  • @Melissa_Benn
Sexual revolutionaries or victims of the recession? Melissa Benn on the men who now eschew the 40-hour week

A badly paid, harassed woman, probably a mother, probably working somewhere in the service sector: such is the traditional image of the part-time worker. Not any longer. More and more men, from car workers to middle managers, are working less than the 40-hour week of breadwinner myth - nearly a million in the UK at the last count.

Yet despite their growing numbers - between 1984 and 1994 there was a 74 per cent increase in male part-time work - these men remain peculiarly invisible. It's as if we don't quite know how to think about a man who doesn't hold down a full-time job. Do we pat him on the back, as a "new man" contributing to the sexual revolution, or feel sorry for him as a victim of the recession?

There has undoubtedly been a growth of chosen part-time work among men in what we can crudely call the middle classes: white-collar, professional workers whowant something more from life than the nine-to-five grind and want to see more of their children. When last year the FNV, the Dutch equivalent of the TUC, launched a highly successful campaign on part-time work, colourful posters appeared out in the streets and on bus shelters. One said, "Hello, I am your Daddy." Point made.

Pam Walton of News Ways to Work, an organisation that advises individuals and policy-makers on flexible working,also sees a huge shift in the attitudes of organisations. Whether they have adopted flexible working patterns in response to recession or high-minded idealism (and it's more likely to be the former), they no longertarget women only. "Now there's a feeling that a whole range of people might benefit from new ways to work," she says. "The other day, a colleague of mine called the changes the `quiet revolution'."

But there's been another economic revolution going on,a more unstable one that has driven a generation of men out of the expected pattern of 40 hours for 40 years into insecure, transitory forms of work. In April 1994, the Low Pay Unit found that 800,000 part-time men fell below the Council of Europe's "decency threshold". It is this fragmentation of the labour market that accounts for most of the growth in male part-time work.

Not surprisingly, the lure of the "proper job", with all its implications formasculinity, still haunts many British men. According to the TUC, more male part-time workers than female would like to go full-time. And most of the men are under 25 or over 50, suggesting it is their weakness in the labour market rather than choice that determines their low hours.

At Ford's Dagenham car plant, symbol of the heyday of full male employment, one senses the anxiety that hovers over this question of time. Part-time working was introduced at the Paint, Trim and Assembly Plant seven years ago, andabout half the part-timers are men.Steve Riley, a union convenor, says: "More and more men have been applying as the economic situation has worsened. They canearn more here in two days than in a five-day- a-week job as an unskilled labourer elsewhere."

Yet part-time workis still not a desirable option for most men. Why?

Darren Baldwin, 23, worked part-time at the PTA for three and a half years, covering for colleagues who were sick or on leave, and was recently made up to full time. His relief is palpable. Being part-time was "a bit embarrassing. I didn't like mentioning it outside the plant. It was as if you couldn't get a full-time job". He spent most of his freetime fishing- "hobbies, I suppose you'd call them. But hobbies were the last thing I wanted to do. It was always a bit depressing.

"There's hardly a man I've worked alongside who doesn't feel the same way as I do. It's really only the women with children who are happy with part-time." Darren doesn't have children himself, but he's pretty sure he would always want to work full-time, even if he could live like a king on full paternity pay.

Some men are more positive about the experience of part-time work. Peter Carr, 47, in many ways symbolises the versatile new worker of the 21st century. Based in East Anglia, he does three part-time jobs in all: firefighter, caretaker of the local village hall and casual coach driving. To him, this working style isa strength. "Being relatively skilled, I feel that employers actually treat me better because I don't work for them full- time. They, and I, don't feel that my whole future is bound up with them. It might be different if I was a shop assistant or cleaner."

What riles him is not any sense of being less of a man but straightforward economic discrimination: "As a part-timer, I'm not permitted to join the fireman's pension scheme, open to all full-timers. I have no pension rights whatsoever." He is currently mounting a legal challenge against the local authority; his case will be heard soon at an industrial tribunal.

The mood is better stillin the north London home of Martin Beck, 43, who recently qualified as a psychotherapist, allowing him to leave the full-time administrative job that he had held for 20 years. He now works 20 hours a week, for much the same pay he received in his old job.

Mr Beck is a new man in two senses. He wanted to spend more time with his small son - one of the most common reasons given by men for giving up the full-time option - but he has also jettisoned the notion that work equals salvation. He is convinced that a lot of full-time work is merely wasted time. "I could easily have done my old job in half a week. But I also wantedtime to myself. To read, think. Paul Lafargue, a political thinker in the 19th century, called it the `right to laziness'. Dreaming, doing nothing is an important part of living."

Mr Beck says: "A lot of people don't have the choice that I did. But I look at my male friends and I can divide them into those who would hate to have time off and those who would be quite happy. Free time can make people very anxious. It throws you back on yourself and your own resources."

But what about men at the top? Where are the seriously ambitious, seriously paid men who work only a three-day week? (Apart, that is, from all the bonus-boosted non-executive directors who put in a day or two a week or month.) It is virtually impossible to find a top male executive, be it in a bank, a news-paper or even a trade union, who doesn't put in 60 hours a week. Until men like this begin to question and redefine the meaning of work, part-timers will always be the poor relatives in the economy.

Thefew top jobsdone part-time have been heldby women. The current chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, Kamlesh Bahl, was appointed on a three-day-a-week basis. In 1992, two womensuccessfully job-shared as chief executive of the Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham Health Services Authority.

Andin the preliminary results of a survey on men and flexible work to be published in June, New Ways to Work found most part-time and job- sharing men go no higher than middle-management level. The top salary quotedwas £50,000. And this was untypically high.

John Quail, 51, is a good example of this middle-management phenomenon. A confident and passionate part-time worker for nine years, he isperformance review officer for the Leeds office of the Housing Corporation. Those nine years have made it possible for him to have a "civilised lifestyle, see a lot of my kids, do up a couple of houses, work on my PhD. When I look at friends and colleagues who work full-time, they are under a great deal of stress - work, kids, relationships. It's bloody hard."

But he accepts that if he wants to go further - or even sideways - he will probably have to go full-time. "There's this general view that if you're not full-time, you're not so committed, not such a good prospect for promotion. I accept that in some jobs the boss has to be there. But there's so much old baloney talked about a lot of work, about it not being possible to do as a job share. There's still this macho thing: `If I do not hack and slash my way through the undergrowth of the organisation, then it will simply fall apart.' "

However, Quail agrees that attitudes are shifting. "I had an engineer friend who back in the Seventies looked after his two kids for a few years. Then he decided to go back to work. When his employers asked him what he'd been doing for the past few years, they were simply gobsmacked." That, he says, simply wouldn't happen any more. Quiet revolution or not, being a part-time man is definitely not as weird as it once was.